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Could Reef Aquariums Become Illegal?

The marine and coral reef aquarium hobby are presently in the cross hairs of well-meaning, vocal and well-funded critics.

By Ronald L. Shimek, Ph.D.

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Banggai cardinalfish

Banggai cardinalfish. Photo credit: Shutterstock
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reef aquarium

Reef aquarium. Photo credit: Shutterstock

The reef aquarium hobby is facing a crisis. There is a serious effort being made to introduce new laws affecting the hobby. If enacted none of these laws would make the hobby illegal. However, they could make collection and importation of many reef organisms either illegal or confounded by enough regulations to make them economically unviable.

Why the Hobby is Targeted
There are probably two main reasons for the attack on the reef aquarium hobby, and neither of them has anything directly to do with reef aquariums. The primary reason is that coral reefs are in trouble — very serious trouble — and well-meaning people believe that stopping collection for the aquarium trade will drastically improve reef health. The second reason is that hobbyists haven’t been able to breed most of the reef animals they keep in captivity, and therefore they purchase wild-caught specimens. First let’s look at why coral reefs are in trouble.

One of the first indications of problems for coral reefs to come was a disastrous panzootic (an infectious disease) that burned through the Caribbean Diadema antillarum sea urchin population. It started near Belize in 1983 and spread clockwise around the entire Caribbean Basin. By late 1984, only small remnants of a sea urchin population that had numbered in the multi-billions were remaining. It soon became evident that coral reefs in the region depended on the cumulative grazing activities of that particular sea urchin species. Without the urchins to mow down macroalgae, the macroalgae rapidly grew, smothering and killing corals and other sessile animals. This, in turn, opened the substrate to colonization by other animals, primarily encrusting sponges that had hitherto been relatively minor reef components kept at bay by the sea urchins’ grazing activity. Although a few bona fide coral reefs do remain, mostly around the north coast of South America, it appears that Caribbean reefs as they were previously known are a thing of the past.

And if that weren’t bad enough, recent research tells an equally grim tale about Indo-Pacific reefs. Biologists analyzed the change in coral cover and found that from the mid-1960s until about 2000, the coral cover throughout the various Indo-Pacific subregions dropped on average by about 1 percent to 3 percent per year, depending upon the area examined. In the 1960s, coral cover was consistently recorded as being more than 90 percent. By the turn of this century, most studies recorded coral cover as a “respectable” 40 percent to 50 percent. That drop in coral cover from 1960 to 2000 represents a phenomenal mortality of corals and by itself is bad enough. If the rate of the drop continues, however — and by all accounts it is continuing — by 2030 or so, many coral reefs will have lost most or all of their coral cover.

It is a truism of statistics that correlation doesn’t imply causation; without experimentation, it is impossible to tell what exactly is causing a change. However, the widespread nature of these changes suggests a widespread cause or series of causes. The most likely cause of such a far-reaching effect is the increase in global temperature that was confirmed in the latter half of the 20th century. The overall global average temperature rise over the century was about 1.33 degrees Fahrenheit. Corals live and grow best very close to their maximum tolerable temperature. Many of them may die, though, when the temperature exceeds the long-term average regional high temperature by only a degree or two. The greatest increase in seawater temperatures in the 20th century occurred during the period from 1960 until the end of the century — coincidentally, the same time during which coral cover plummeted. So it is tempting to attribute the loss of coral cover to the “small” rise in seawater temperature measured. And given that there is no other gun, smoking or otherwise, that can be conjured up for the whole of the Indo-Pacific, global climate change seems to be the most likely candidate for the cause in decline of coral cover. Unfortunately, climate change is not going to go away, and predictions of future coral mortality are nothing if not uniformly grim.

Obviously, the reef aquarium hobby has nothing to do with climate change. However, for someone who wants to do something to halt the decline in coral reef health, it seems obvious that halting or restricting the harvesting of corals for a frivolous hobby would be a reasonable course of action. The question is: Is it?

The second important factor that paints a bull’s-eye on the reef aquarium hobby is the inability of hobbyists to breed or obtain from aquaculture most of the animals in our tanks. With the exception of a few corals reproduced from fragments and some fish, virtually every animal in the hobby is wild-caught. Thus, the obvious questions become: How much wildlife does the hobby consume, and what is the effect of that consumption on natural populations and ecosystems? Although these are simple and straightforward questions, it is next to impossible to get clear answers to them.

Problems with the Data
In this day of computers and data analysis, one would think that reliable data on the import or export of any commodity would be easy to obtain. These data are far from easy to obtain. Perhaps it is possible to get good data if the commodity is perceived as being important, such as oil, coconut shells or exiled politicians. In such cases, it becomes feasible to spend money tracking the commodity and verifying the results. Unfortunately, tracking the trade in living marine ornamental organisms appears akin to verifying the weight of the local fog patch.

TABLE 1

Approximate number of animals in the marine aquarium trade (Modified from Bruckner, 2005)
Fish Corals Invertebrates
1,400 species 150 species 300 to 500 species
14 to 30 million specimens 1 million specimens 2 to 5 million specimens

The difficulties in ascertaining the trade in reef animals are worth a brief examination, if only to illustrate why problems exist. Perhaps the major hindrance is the basic unreliability of the data. Simple numerical mistakes are rampant, explicable and somewhat excusable. Many small shipments of large numbers of separately tallied organisms generate unavoidable errors everywhere along the process. Additionally, especially in nations where bribery and corruption are common, virtually every party involved with the process may have an incentive to “fudge” the data. If that weren’t bad enough, other major obstacles are the inconsistencies in the various databases; for example, exporting and importing nations naturally report different things. A similar problem is seen within industry data wherein exporters and importers always report different data for the same shipment. At the best of times, the differences result from honest reporting of normal animal mortality in transit. The exporter sends out a certain number of live specimens, some die in transit, and the importer records and reports the live animals received. Both sets of data may or may not be correct, but they are always different.

Even if all other things are done properly, the taxonomic problem may be effectively insurmountable. In this trade and hobby, it is effectively impossible to tell what animals are being dealt with. With the exception of very few highly distinctive species, such as elegance corals (Catalaphyllia jardinei) and the various Euphyllia species, most corals are simply unidentifiable. While hobbyists like to think they can correctly identify their specimens by comparing them to an image cribbed from an unverifiable Internet source, most coral taxonomists are not so sanguine about the process; they realize without access to museum specimens or a molecular genetic lab, identification of most species is impossible. This may be one reason that when one starts to look through the import and export records, it is obvious that many names have been applied pretty much randomly.

Using What Data We Have
With all of these problems, is it possible to get a good ballpark estimate of the trade? The short answer is no. The longer answer is that an estimate of the trade in some species is obtainable, but at best the numbers should be considered as gross estimations. While it is impossible to determine precisely any aspect of the trade, one fact is certain: The number of species and specimens involved is immense. (See “Table 1: The approximate number of animals in the marine aquarium trade.”)

A more recent estimate may be made using the UN Comtrade database (comtrade.un.org), which attempts to categorize and list all worldwide trade. For 2010 (the most recent year on record), under the category of live ornamental fish, Indonesia exported 2,371,089 kilograms worth at a value of $19,766,172. The total world trade in ornamental fish during the same year was “precisely” $1,452,950,086 and (presumably) some odd cents. Anyone who thinks these data may be accurately measured to the individual, the kilogram or the dollar is delusional. Given the various sources of error, it is hard to estimate the amount of error other than to say it is large. This database doesn’t list fish, invertebrates or corals separately; all ornamental critters are rolled into “live ornamental fish.” This is a small trade when viewed from the aspect of major commodities, such as grain or oil, but when viewed from the aspect of the third-world fisherman who makes just a few bucks a day, it means that a lot of animals are being harvested.

Is hard to pin down a number, but some reports may have more reliable estimates. The data in Table 2 and Table 3 were originally from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) reports. As with all data in this discussion, the values in Tables 2 and 3 should be interpreted with caution. Other data sets would have different numerical results; however, the general trends probably would be the same. Almost all the primary authors studying this trade indicate the data are qualitative and not quantitative. The data may be used to assess trends, but the numbers are simply estimates.

TABLE 2

Top 10 stony coral imports for the United States derived from CITES data from 1997 through 2001 (from Wabnitz et al., 2003)
Taxon Number of Specimens
1. Scleractinia spp.  1,838,843
2. Euphyllia spp. 304,257
3. Goniopora spp. 201,847
4. Acropora spp. 191,475
5. Trachyphyllia spp. 180,351
6. Catalaphyllia jardinei 159,693
7. Plerogyra spp. 116,623
8. Heliofungia actiniformis 96,515
9. Lobophyllia spp.  65,016
10. Turbinaria spp. 63,508

Many other data are absent from these tables; for example, Wabnitz et al. (2003) noted that in the Florida Keys, collectors with the appropriate license could, in 2003, harvest 400 giant sea anemones (Condylactis gigantea) per vessel per day. An estimated 11.8 million of these anemones were landed annually between 1997 and 1999, with more than 90 percent collected in the Florida Keys. On the other side of the U.S., harvesting was also intense; in 1994, reports indicated that 430,000 marine fish were collected in Hawaii.

The Real Effects Of The Hobby Harvest
With hundreds of thousands to millions of specimens being collected, the question rightly becomes one of effects. Collectors initially argued that the aquarium fishery had no significant effects, but numerous studies have shown that there are effects, but they vary with the species and the area. While the actual impact of the various harvesting fisheries in many areas are truly poorly known, in most areas where they have been adequately investigated, they can be and have been shown to be deleterious, sometimes significantly so. This is particularly true when the harvested species are ecologically important, are long-lived and have stable populations — this means that these populations can’t easily recover from aggressive collection. Sea anemones and sea stars are often mentioned in this regard, as such animals are often ecologically very important. Unfortunately, their poor survival in the hobby is almost legendary. What is not legendary is the well-documented environmental importance of such “keystone” species.

When these data are examined by themselves, they may appear rather damning. But the data should not be examined in isolation. Although the fisheries for the hobby are often destructive, they are generally far less destructive than the fisheries that obtain food fish. The fishermen get far more “bang for their buck,” by collecting specimens for the hobby than they would harvesting fish to sell as food, and they realize it is to their advantage to keep their resources sustainable. Moreover, something that both the critics and supporters of the hobby often neglect to address is that the various hobby fisheries may have relative minor effects compared to other factors affecting coral reefs. For example, changes in ecological species compositions due to agricultural runoff and terrestrial development are huge and often ignored. Nonetheless, harvesting for the reef aquarium hobby is an easy and visible target.

TABLE 3

The 10 most traded species of marine ornamental invertebrates worldwide
(from Wabnitz et al., 2003)
Species Common Name
Number of Specimens
 Trochus spp. Topshell or trochus shell 272,203
Unspecified invertebrates N/A 247,038
Lysmata spp. Cleaner shrimp 107,452
Heteractis spp. Sea anemone 54,369
Stenopus spp. Banded coral shrimp 42,802
Tridacna spp. Giant clam 37,521
Linckia spp. Blue sea star 32,509
Rhynchocinetes spp. Camel shrimp 30,846
Stichodactyla spp. Carpet anemone 27,341
Strigopagurus spp. Hermit crab 24,512

Why Me?
What seems to drive these calls for legislation are the perceived effects of the collection as being a classic example of the pillage and plunder of the apparently “pristine” but distant natural world by rich folks. The perception of the hobby is that it is a pastime which, unlike the freshwater hobby, depends almost entirely on wild-caught species. Regrettably, both perceptions of the hobby are largely true. Consequently, the calls for regulation of the hobby can be viewed as attempts to do something to protect fragile environments. The lack of effective efforts by hobbyists and the industry to self-regulate these fisheries is used as part of the rationale for their legislative necessity. Attempts to manage collections to be environmentally responsible have generally failed due to lack of consumer interest.

Additionally, the reef hobby is notably lacking hobbyists interested in breeding many species of fish. This issue is particularly a problem. The freshwater industry benefits now from the legacy of generations of hobbyists who first learned how to breed the many species of freshwater fish raised in captivity today. These hobbyists paved the way for the aquaculture of many species, in turn, providing cheap livestock with minimal environmental consequences.

The marine aquarium hobby in general and its subset, the coral reef aquarium hobby, are presently in the cross hairs of well-meaning, vocal and well-funded critics. The fact that the hobby can be considered to be environmentally deleterious and frivolous makes it a good target. The next part of this series will discuss some of the recent attempts at legislation, as well as some actions hobbyists might be able to take to prevent the hobby from being regulated out of existence.


Ronald L. Shimek, Ph.D., has a background in marine biology and invertebrate zoology. He is the author of Marine Invertebrates: 500+ Essential-To-Know Aquarium Species and is the recipient of MASNA’s 2001 Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Marine Aquarium Hobby. 
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