The global trade of marine organisms involves roughly 20-25 million live fishes, 12 million pieces of coral and 10 million other invertebrates each year. The ornamental trade is dominated by freshwater species, however, since the 1980s, marine aquaria has become a notable trend. Over 80% of traded marine ornamentals originate from the Coral Triangle, in particular the Philippines and Indonesia while the US is the largest importer.
Map of the Coral Triangle. Source: Coral Geographic
Currently, the marine ornamental trade in these regions is on an unsustainable path due to ecologically damaging fishing practices. Sodium cyanide is commonly used to stun and catch ornamental species resulting in high mortality rates in the supply chain. Many of the target species caught with these methods may not survive long in captivity due to poor health and transport conditions, keeping the demand for new replacement fish high. This results in an unsustainable cycle and carries on throughout the food chain affecting many more species, even us.
These techniques also inflict collateral damage upon coral reefs and other marine life. Because cyanide is a highly toxic chemical, it is believed that for every fish caught with cyanide, nearly one square metre of coral is destroyed. Once the coral is dead, the entire ecosystem can collapse and other animals are left without shelter, food, and breeding grounds. Unsurprisingly, cyanide is illegal in most countries, but poor law enforcement makes it nearly impossible to eliminate, and quantifying the use of these techniques is difficult due to the covert nature of these practices. Clearly, it must be stopped and other collection techniques with minimal impacts must be promoted. Major exporting and importing countries need to promote awareness, make policy changes and crack down on the use of cyanide.
A fisherman using cyanide for easy capture in the Philippines. Source: National Geographic
The rising number of home aquarium enthusiasts has led to the excessive demand of aquarium species, confirming the need to promote different conservation strategies such as captive breeding for popular marine species (like our program here at Atoll Marine Centre). Breeding marine ornamentals can not only supplement the trade with a more sustainable option but also offer new information on the reproductive biology and life history of these species, essential to understanding the response of natural populations to human induced effects. Recent advances in aquaculture, including improvements in nutrition for different development stages, will enable many more species to be bred in captivity. Further research into developing fish husbandry protocols in exporting countries should also be encouraged as to take pressure off wild stocks and to avoid removing livelihoods from low income coastal communities.
A home coral reef aquarium. source: enviropacs
At the source country level, measures such as quotas and size limits, and restricted access to the ornamental fishery through permits and marine parks, would be a positive step in the right direction. Along with this, efforts from the home aquarist are essential to achieve proper management of the aquarium trade. By spending a few extra dollars to purchase fish produced in an environmentally sustainable manner, you are reducing the demand for the wild harvest of species. Understandably, the change towards a more sustainable trade is not something that will happen overnight, it will be a long swim to enforcing global aquarium collection laws and finding foolproof alternatives to destructive fishing. Nevertheless, as a consumer and as a voter, you can make a huge difference by advocating for further action on protecting our marine ecosystems. This could be through spreading information, donating to a marine conservation charity or even just letting everyone know why it matters to you.
By Zoe Tapps