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Why the High Dropout Rate?

A lot of us have known for several years that the marine aquarium hobby was on the decline in popularity, but now we have data to prove it.

By John Tullock

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A lot of us have known for several years that the saltwater aquarium hobby was on the decline in popularity, but now we have data to prove it. In its 1999/2000 National Pet Owners Survey, the American Pet Products Manufacturer’s Association (APPMA) found that the number of saltwater aquarium households in the United States declined by almost 17 percent between 1996 and 1999, from 600,000 households to 500,000. One hobbyist out of every six gave it up. Independent aquarium dealers, in particular, have felt the pinch of this loss of consumer base, ironically at a time when most other sectors of the economy are booming. What are the causes of this decline, and, more importantly, what can be done to reverse the trend? Opinions vary.

Mike Paletta, a respected hobbyist and author, writing in the Winter 2000 issue of SeaScope, agrees that a problem exists. He cites several possible reasons, including manufacturers making bogus claims, lack of scientific data regarding aquarium technology and hobbyist “boredom” due to a lack of new invertebrate species continually arriving in the marketplace. While any or all of these may explain why some hobbyists drop out, the APPMA data suggest that the real reasons have more to do with society in general than with the nature of the hobby itself and the industry it supports.

For example, the APPMA survey found that 64 percent of saltwater aquarium owners (not drop-outs, mind you) said the biggest drawback to aquarium keeping is the need for maintenance. Algae was cited as a problem by 57 percent and the cost of equipment was noted as a factor by 47 percent. Close on the heels of these top three perceived problems was the high rate of saltwater fish mortality, cited as a problem by 38 percent of saltwater aquarium owners. Maintaining water quality, finding appropriate care for the aquarium while on vacation, and the cost of food, medications and supplies was cited as a factor by at least one owner in five.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom sometimes expressed among advanced hobbyists and industry-watchers like myself, only 4 percent of saltwater aquarium owners thought their local pet store lacked sufficient knowledge to help them. Only 2 percent of the survey respondents said there were “no drawbacks” to owning a saltwater aquarium.

It therefore appears that the major issue is the time required for maintaining the aquarium in an appropriate condition, because this relates not only to the need for regular maintenance, but also to algae control, a major aesthetic factor. I am willing to bet that saltwater aquariums are often installed as part of the decor of a family room or elsewhere in the owner’s home or office, and are subsequently abandoned when the demand for time to keep them looking great becomes too imposing. These days, even an hour is too much for some people to spare. Hiring a maintenance service is probably only an option for upscale owners and is much more likely when the aquarium is located in a business office rather than a private home.

But not everyone who owns a saltwater aquarium does so just to decorate the den or the waiting room. In fact, the APPMA survey found that “saltwater fish owners are more likely than freshwater fish owners to consider fish ownership a hobby.” In other words, the majority of saltwater aquarists see the aquarium as more than a decorative item, with other values such as educating the kids or teaching them responsibility cited as important by over a fifth of those surveyed. Saltwater and freshwater fish hobbyists agree that fish are “fun to watch,” that fishwatching is “relaxing” and that fish are beautiful to look at. (Or, in the terminology of the survey report, fish “have a pleasing appearance.” Can you imagine any of the respondents actually saying that?)

One thing the survey did not find is that aquarium keepers leave the hobby out of boredom. If this were the case, it would be hard to imagine how the American Livebearer Association, the International Betta Congress and various other specialty societies could have remained viable and enthusiastic about a single species or family of fishes for decades. There seems always to be something new afoot in aquarium keeping and this is particularly true of reef aquariums.

Even though reef aquariums have now been around in one form or the other for 15 years, we have still not begun to exhaust the possibilities. For one thing, the reef itself is only one of many separate habitat types within coastal tropical ecosystems. I could build you a dozen beautiful saltwater aquariums and stock them with species most of you have never seen, merely from the environs of the Florida Keys. Let those who are bored, therefore, venture into their own backyards for excitement.

Also scarcely explored by saltwater aquarium keepers are the various temperate saltwater habitats along the U.S. coast line, not to mention those to be found elsewhere in the world. Despite the need, in some cases, for collecting permits and such, the shores of the good old U.S.A. offer plenty of new discoveries for those willing to look. And the specter of import bans and restrictions will not apply to interstate commerce. If hobbyists were willing to experiment, the eventual appearance of suppliers willing to collect or, better yet, propagate is guaranteed.

As supplies of wild-caught specimens dwindle in response to closures —rumored or real — by the governments of supplier countries (and who are we to presume to know better than they how to manage their resources for the best interests of their citizens?) the value of captive propagation will become increasingly apparent. It is important to note, however, that outright bans or closures are not being pursued wholesale and across various geographic boundaries simultaneously. Even that dreaded bureaucracy, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is not seeking to close our borders to all imported saltwater livestock, only to help assure that what does arrive here was harvested responsibly and handled so as not to amount, in the hands of the final consumer, to “damaged goods.”

Perhaps, also, we will soon come to understand the real value — calculated after all the environmental costs are taken into account — of owning a rare and beautiful wild creature such as an emperor angelfish, and the appalling rate of mortality among imported fish will start to decrease. Maybe then the popularity of saltwater aquarium keeping will become more widespread, reversing the decline. I have no survey data to cite, but I have heard too many people declare they were leaving the hobby after watching a magnificent specimen slowly decline and die despite their best and most conscientious efforts to achieve a different outcome.

APPMA, together with the Florida Tropical Fish Farmers Association, the Florida Department of Agriculture and various private companies, is gearing up to spend nearly half a million dollars next year to convince the general public that aquarium keeping is a good idea. I’ve read their draft plan for the “Aquarium Fish and Accessories Marketing Campaign,” and nowhere within it do I find addressed the issues of animal health and chronic mortality, nor is coral reef conservation as a part of responsible aquarium keeping discussed. Of course, I did not expect to find such discussion. No public relations company worth its hype would tout these negative points, even as a prelude to offering solutions. But until the saltwater side of the hobby faces up to the issues involving wild harvest and its effects ‹and one of those effects is the discouraging bugaboo of delayed mortality) expect the exodus of hobbyists to continue.

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