Sunday, May 22, 2016

Finding Sustainability in the Marine Aquarium Trade, by Don Orth

Most marine fish in  aquarium stores come directly from the wild, unlike the freshwater aquarium trade. We want to believe the marine fish in pet stores were bred in marine ornamental fish farms, but that is not the reality. Rather, 90% of the marine fish are harvested directly from coral reef environments.  U.S. imports millions of aquarium fish and invertebrate specimens, comprising thousands of species, to support its marine aquarium industry. One study estimated that 11 million marine ornamental fish entered the US in one year (Rhyne et al. 2012).  Among the most popular are Anemonefishes and Damselfishes (family Pomacentridae).  Harvesting these fish from the wild may cause a host of problems because of ineffective management schemes to protect these fishes and associated coral reefs.   Consequently, the global marine aquarium trade industry is not sustainable under current practices.  
Chromis viridis Blue-Green Chromis, one of the most popular marine fish imported to the US. Source
Harvesters often target juvenile fishes from many species and stock assessments are difficult and costly, so status of the harvested populations is often unknown. Cyanide is often used to easily capture numerous individuals. Fish react quickly to cyanide but will recover if transferred to clean seawater.  However, cyanide use damages coral reefs and is risky to the harvesters.   Release of nonindigenous species is another risk associated with marine aquarium trade.  In Florida, over 30 nonindigenous species of marine fish have been released (Schofield et al. 2009).  The best-known example is the lionfish,  (Pterois spp.) which has rapidly expanded from Florida throughout the Bahamas. 

Because harvest practices are often poorly regulated, it is difficult to estimate the total take of marine fish for live export in the aquarium trade. The length and complexity of the supply chain, along with poor harvesting, handling, and holding practices increase mortality (Cohen et al. 2013).  Some studies indicate that as many as 80% of marine fish die during capture, shipment, or handling.  In addition, many fish harvested will never reach the market because of quality issues and rejection by buyers. Reputable and sustainable marine products should follow standards established by the Marine Aquarium Council, in order to be certified and have eco-labels. Yet, eco-labeling is not common practice in the industry.   Net-captured marine tropical fish often receive premium prices by certain buyers.
Yellow Tang Zebrasoma flavescens is one of the most popular marine aquarium fishes. Photo by Fred Hsu
Coral reef ecosystems are among the most threatened on the planet.  Pollution and climate change impair the health of these vital ecosystems.  Unregulated take and damaging fishing practices simply depress ecosystem values even further.  The most critical and diverse region is called the Coral Triangle, waters off Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, and the Solomon Islands.  Many initiatives and organizations are involved to improve the sustainability of the marine trade industry.  One important source is Hawaii, where 30% of exported fish (150,000 fish per year) were Yellow Tang Zebrasoma flavescens (Lecchini et al. 2006).   Hawaii has recently established a network of areas closed to aquarium fishing, on the prime-target species, Yellow Tang.  Only licensed collectors are permitted to harvest yellow tangs in Hawaii.  The Yellow Tang is a very long-lived fish (> 40 years) that has benefited from these protected areas.    
Nemo, is a clownfish from the movie Saving Nemo
Nemo, a talking clownfish, from the movie Saving Nemo familiarized many young children with the clownfish.  Fortunately, the clownfish is among the simplest marine fish to raise in captivity.  Two Australian universities founded the Saving Nemo Conservation Fund to support breeding clownfish to ensure populations are not harvested from the wild.  Dory is the popular talking Blue Tang fish in Saving Nemo and Finding Dory; her voice is Ellen DeGeneres.  Release of this new movie in June may result in renewed pressure to harvest Blue Tang, a fish that cannot yet be bred in fish nurseries.  Consequently, a social media campaign, using #fishkiss4nemo, is underway to promote sustainable practices for marine aquarium trade.   

The National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could use the Lacey Act authority to more effectively crack down on cyanide-caught fish by requiring testing and certification of imported tropical fish (Colado et al. 2014). Alternatively, marine fish buyers can use the Tank Watch app to select fish to buy after learning which saltwater aquarium fish species may be captive-bred and which are captured in the wild.   You can also support organizations, such as For The Fishes, that support sustainable aquarium trade and health oceans.  Celebrate and promote activities of World Oceans Day which is June 8. Follow @celebrateoceansday #worldoceansday @savingnemo for more stories.  There are numerous public aquariums worldwide that promote marine conservation and source and display marine fish in sustainable ways.  
Lemon Damsel Fish Pomacentrus moluccensis. Photo by Louise Murray
Virginia Tech (Virginia Seafood Agricultural Research Center) launched a conservation aquaculture effort to tank raise popular marine aquarium fishes. This effort provides practical knowledge and a potential opportunity for American businesses to raise and sell the fish instead.  Research on captive breeding of marine ornamentals is still in its infancy, but someday may serve to reduce the demand on the thousands of marine species (Moorehead and Zeng 2010).

Calado, R., M.C. Leal, M.C.M. Vaz, C. Brown, R. Rosa, T.C. Stevenson, C.H. Cooper, B.N. Tissot, Y-W. Li, and D.J. Thornhill.  2014.  Caught in the act: how the U.S. Lacey Act can hamper the fight against cyanide fishing in tropical coral reefs.  Conservation Letters 7(6):561-564. doi: 10.1111/conl.12088
Cohen, F.P.A., W.C. Vaenti, and R. Calado. 2013. Traceability issues in the trade of marine ornamental species. Reviews in Fisheries Science 21(2):98-111. DOI: 10.1080/10641262.2012.760522
Lecchini, D., S. Polti, Y. Nakamura, P. MOsconi, M. Tsuchiya, G. Remoissenet, and S. Planes. 2006.  New perspectives on aquarium fish trade.  Fisheries Science 72:40-47.
Moorhead, J.A., and C. Zeng.  2010. Development of captive breeding techniques for marine ornamental fish: A review. Reviews in Fisheries Science 18(4): 315-343, DOI: 10.1080/10641262.2010.516035
Rhyne, A.L., M.F. Tlusty, P.J. Schofield, L. Kaufman, J.A. Morris, Jr., and A.W. Bruckner.  2012. Revealing the Appetite of the Marine Aquarium Fish Trade: The Volume and Biodiversity of Fish Imported into the United States.  PLoS ONE 7(5):  e35808. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0035808
Schofield, P.J., J. Morris, and L. Akins. 2009. Field guideto nonindigenous marine fishes of Florida. NOAA Technical Memorandum NOS NCCOS, Silver Spring, Maryland. 92 p.
Williams, I.D., W.J. Walsh, J.T. Claisse, B.N. Tissot, and K.A. Stamoulis. 2009. Impacts of a Hawaiian marine protected area network on the abundance and fishery sustainability of the yellow tang, Zebrasoma flavescens. Biological Conservation 142: 1066–1073.  doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2008.12.029

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