So long and thanks for all the fish!

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It’s that time of year again, spring is in the air (mostly!) and thoughts turn to summer holidays relaxing on the beach, swimming in the sea, snorkelling over colourful corals and silvery fishes. But what is the future for these seemingly idyllic ecosystems? Current research suggests that coral reef ecosystems globally are under mounting pressure, from warming seas, acidification, over fishing, tourist damage etc., however until this week I was unaware of the potentially wide ranging impacts of the tropical fish trade. As someone who has kept fish as pets and occasionally visits aquariums, I wanted to know more about how fish are sourced for aquaria displays.

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A recent article from National Geographic states that up to 98% of marine ornamental fish cannot be bred in captivity on a commercial scale; therefore they must be collected from the wild, namely from Southeast Asia. According to a report from NOAA in 2008, up to 90% of the 11 million marine aquarium fish imported to the USA are caught illegally using cyanide. Although fishing using cyanide has been banned across the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, there is little enforcement and with huge sums at stake, more and more fishermen are turning from fishing for food to supplying the aquarium trade (worth up to $200 million p.a. according to the WWF).

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When cyanide tablets are ground down, they can be mixed with water and using squeezy bottles, used to flush out stunned fish from hiding places in the reef. Cyanide impairs movement and breathing in fish and with such an imprecise method of delivery, many simply die. It has been estimated that for each fish collected, a square yard of coral is killed or bleached (which of course has further knock on impacts across the reef ecosystem). It appears that both the fishermen and middle men involved in this trade are very quick to pass on their catch, as there is a high risk of fish death, even some time after collection and then of course the risk is passed onto the unsuspecting aquarium owners who will need to replace their collection if a fish dies. But what can be done to break this cycle and ensure that fish are ethically supplied from sustainable sources?

Bags of fish.

New laws are currently being drafted globally, with new legislation being debated and huge petitions aiming to make cyanide testing and certification of imported fish mandatory. However, this does not reduce pressures on tropical fishes still being collected from the wild in huge numbers, and many are now calling for only captive bred fish to be sold and traded. It is perhaps ironic that after the release of Disney’s film Finding Nemo (in which a wild fish is taken off the reef for a private aquarium and the tank fish fight for freedom in the open ocean), demand for clownfish and tangs shot up by 40% almost overnight.

Although many clownfish species can be bred in captivity, royal tangs are now being over collected and are endangered in the wild. A new app called Tank Watch (developed by the Humane Society of the United States) aims to help people trace reef-friendly species and public awareness campaigns are aiming to educate people (like me) by highlighting the potential back story of each aquarium fish.

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Of course on the flip side, the aquarium trade has benefitted some rare species, such as the red-tailed black shark which is critically endangered and possibly extinct in the wild, but thanks to the the interest generated by aquarists,  dedicated breeding programs have been set up and a steady captive population now can help preserve this species.

It’s a contentious issue, with opinions running strongly on both sides, including the “Hands off my hobby” campaign of the Ornamental Aquatic Association who aim to protect the “pleasure [gained from fish keeping] as well as [the] social, economic and
health benefits” of the fish trade to the UK. On the opposing side, marine campaign groups such as Sea imagesShepherd have launched their “Operation Reef Defence” to end the wild caught marine fish trade.

Public support is now building for a European wide investigation into the exotic pet trade, and perhaps the end goal should be to ensure ethical standards and protection of reef ecosystems are upheld so that at the end of the day, everyone can sit back and enjoy the fish.

If you fancy more fishy facts (or if you have found a sunfish washed up) please contact me using the comments section below or follow me on Twitter or Instagram @SunfishResearch  🙂

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2 thoughts on “So long and thanks for all the fish!

  1. What about Amazonia? There’s a fish tank nearby my office that had a Raphael Catfish. It was a really cool fish to watch when it decided to do something other than sleep! I learned that they have not been successfully bred in captivity and that every single one is caught in the wild. Apparently this is not unique to these fish either. It looks like a lot of freshwater tropical fish are harvested from the Amazon every year. My mother has a few Asellus Puffers in her tank which look to be wild caught too (apparently this puffer can tolerate the company of a couple other puffers). And I was just talking about Neon Tetra with a friend and wikipedia says that even though they can be bred in captivity, they are still being caught from the wild every year. I wonder if the live plants are routinely taken from the wild too.

    I always kind of suspected that a lot of the fish and coral decorations for salt water tanks were taken from the wild. Never knew it happened in freshwater. Especially for a fish like the Neon Tetra.

    I had no idea there were aquarium fish that were potentially extinct in the wild. From another angle, what do you think about something like Glofish? I’m also guessing fish are being interbred to produce new kinds of fish. And I imagine some of these fish would never meet in the wild. What kind of havoc could there be if these ever escaped in the wild? Are saltwater aquarium enthusiasts playing these games too?

    Random question: I’ve learned (to my surprise) that there are freshwater seals, dolphins, jellyfish, sting rays, sharks, puffers, etc… Anything like a freshwater sunfish?

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  2. Thanks for your comment 🙂 It’s one of those sad facts that a lot of people (myself included) are often unaware of, that a lot of wild animals are caught to supply the pet trade. But it sounds like things are starting to change for the better. As demand increases for creatures to be bred sustainably I hope this will become less of an issue.

    In answer to your question about Glofish, accidentally introduced invasive species are currently causing problems all around the world, (just look at the invasive lionfish currently spreading across the Gulf of Mexico eating everything along the way), so I would imagine if this or any other genetically modified species were released into the wild something similar might occur. But luckily there tend to be strict controls on GM species so I would hope this is unlikely to happen.

    I have seen images of the freshwater species you mentioned (seals, dolphins, sharks etc.) but not a sunfish yet I am sorry to say. There is a species called a freshwater sunfish (bluegill or pumpkinseed) but they are very different to the ocean sunfish so it’s only the name they share. If I hear of anything similar I will post on it 🙂

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