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How the Collection and Acquisition of Reef Animals are Regulated

Attempts to Regulate the Marine and Reefkeeping Hobby Are Likely to Continue

By Ronald L. Shimek, Ph.D.

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yellow tang

More yellow tangs  (Zebrasoma flavescens) are captured in Hawaii for the aquarium fish trade than any other species. Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

In the first part of this article, I discussed why the reef aquarium hobby is an easy target for lawmakers, why we have problems with collection and import data, and the real effects the hobby has on wild coral reefs. In this second and final installment, I will discuss how collection and acquisition of reef animals are regulated, recent regulations and what hobbyists can do to keep more regulations from hitting the hobby.

Possible Coral Listings
The following 82 coral species are being considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Acanthastrea brevis
Acanthastrea hemprichii
Acanthastrea ishigakiensis
Acanthastrea regularis
Acropora aculeus
Acropora acuminata
Acropora aspera
Acropora dendrum
Acropora donei
Acropora globiceps
Acropora horrida
Acropora jacquelineae
Acropora listeri
Acropora lokani
Acropora microclados
Acropora palmerae
Acropora paniculata
Acropora pharaonis
Acropora polystoma
Acropora retusa
Acropora rudis
Acropora speciosa
Acropora striata
Acropora tenella
Acropora vaughani
Acropora verweyi
Agaricia lamarcki
Alveopora allingi
Alveopora fenestrata
Alveopora verrilliana
Anacropora puertogalerae
Anacropora spinosa
Astreopora cucullata
Barabattoia laddi
Caulastrea echinulata
Cyphastrea agassizi
Cyphastrea ocellina
Dendrogyra cylindrus
Dichocoenia stokesi
Euphyllia cristata
Euphyllia paraancora
Euphyllia paradivisa
Galaxea astreata
Heliopora coerulea
Isopora crateriformis
Isopora cuneata
Leptoseris incrustans
Leptoseris yabei
Millepora exaesa
Millepora foveolata
Montastraea annularis
Montastraea faveolata
Montastraea franksi
Montipora angulata
Montipora australiensis
Montipora calcarea
Montipora caliculata
Montipora dilatata
Montipora flabellata
Montipora lobulata
Montipora patula
Mycetophyllia ferox
Pachyseris rugosa
Pavona bipartita
Pavona cactus
Pavona decussata
Pavona diffluens
Pavona venosa
Pectinia alcicornis
Physogyra lichtensteini
Pocillopora elegans
Pocillopora verrucosa
Porites horizontalata
Porites napopora
Porites nigrescens
Porites pukoensis
Psammocora stellata
Seriatopora aculeata
Turbinaria mesenterina
Turbinaria peltata
Turbinaria reniformis
Turbinaria stellula

Regulation of International Trade
Most people concerned about the extinction of wildlife tend to think in terms of animals with fur, feathers or fins; they simply do not relate to invertebrate animals. As a result, with the exception of corals, relatively few regulations have been enacted to protect marine invertebrates. This has left the acquisition of noncoral animals for the reef aquarium hobby largely unregulated, but it also has given people in the hobby a sense of security.

There have been some objective attempts to get a handle on exactly what is happening in the aquarium trade, albeit some of them are now more than a decade old. In 2000, the United States Coral Reef Task Force (USCRTF) estimated that there were about a million marine hobbyists in the United States and about another half million elsewhere in the world. Given the fluctuations that the hobby has seen through the recent recessionary period, those figures are probably still about the best estimates available.

A 2006 study by marine biologist Amanda Vincent estimated that less than 1 percent of live fish and corals were cultured in any manner, and it listed 140 species of scleractinians and 61 species of soft corals harvested for the hobbyist trade. The coral reef animal trade is enormous; Vincent estimated that between 1998 and 2003, the annual trade was between 11 to 12 million corals, with the United States accounting for more than 70 percent of the market. The live rock trade amounts to about 88,000 to 132,000 pounds per year.

The USCRTF suggests that the coral harvest has probably severely depleted local populations of numerous corals, including many Acropora and Porites species, Caulastrea echinulata and Heliopora coerulea. Even some hobby references indicate that some aspects of the trade are severely impacting many species (Borneman, 2001). Corals of many species considered to be at risk are still harvested for the aquarium trade even in countries where such harvesting has been banned.

Reef fish also continue to be harvested in immense numbers: 15 to 20 million coral reef fish survive collection to export or import per year. Many are collected using poisons, and attempts to ensure safe harvesting have not been entirely successful. Even when nontoxic harvesting methods are used, the harvest is efficient and has severely impacted many species. In Hawaii, for example, the collection of tangs and other herbivorous species is affecting reef health because these species play the important ecological role of preventing algal overgrowth of the reefs.

Another problem is present, though it can’t be fully documented. In many cases, fish and invertebrate mortality is extraordinarily high in the collection-to-hobbyist distribution chain. Death estimates typically range up to about 10 to 20 percent at each step of the process — in the steps it takes to get from collection to the aquarist, mortality can reach up to 50 percent. If 100 animals are initially collected, 50 or fewer survive to make it to the home aquarium. While it is possible that the mortality rates are lower than this, many authorities consider the mortality to be significantly higher than 10 percent per stage.

The reef aquarium animal trade may be regulated at three distinct and different steps.

First, the international trade may be regulated by international treaty. Second, the United States component of the trade may be regulated by the United States federal government. Third, some aspects of the trade may be regulated by individual states. All three regulatory levels impact how an empty aquarium is filled with animals.

[ Step 1 ]
International Regulation
What many hobbyists fail to realize is that the hobby is already subject to some significant international regulations. The most sweeping regulations result from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which was enacted in 1973 to protect all types of species from extinction.

CITES regulations governing coral reef organisms were not (at least initially) enacted out of a desire to preserve any specific coral species. Instead, they were a result of the realization of the ecological and economical importance of coral reefs, coupled with the problems facing the coral reef habitat. Nations that are signatories to CITES (notably the United States as the largest importer and Indonesia as the largest exporter of live coral reef animals) have pledged to uphold these regulations.

About 5,000 threatened animal and 29,000 threatened plant species, as well as other groups of organisms (such as corals) are protected by CITES against overexploitation. They are categorized and placed into CITES Appendix I, Appendix II or Appendix III, according to the level of the threat they face. Trade regulations and requirements vary according to the CITES Appendices.

Appendix I. Threatened with imminent extinction, international commercial trade in specimens of Appendix I species is generally prohibited. However, exemptions are allowed on a case-by-case basis, such as the collection of one or a few specimens for scientific purposes.

Appendix II. Species listed under Appendix II are not in immediate danger of extinction, but their long-term survival is considered to be tenuous. Trade in Appendix II specimens is closely monitored and controlled. Further protection is provided by a provision to control trade in species whose specimens appear similar to the threatened species. Because it is easy to misidentify species, people may accidentally collect the threatened species instead of the similar-looking specimens. Permits or certificates necessary for trade are not to be granted unless the relevant authorities in the exporting nations are satisfied that the trade will not be detrimental.

Appendix III. Appendix III species are those included at the request of a nation that already regulates trade in that species and needs the cooperation of other countries. At first glance it seems that CITES should offer substantial protection for corals. While CITES would probably work in a perfect world, in our world of blatant inequalities of wealth and great cultural differences, CITES works best on paper. While it can work reasonably well for elephants and rhinoceroses, does it work for corals? It appears to be perceived by all unbiased observers (those without a stake in the specific trade being examined) as being largely ineffective.

Is CITES effective at all? If so, how effective is it? The truth is that nobody knows. To be truly operative, CITES needs efficient regulation by the exporting nations and knowledgeable monitoring by the importing nations, and neither appears to occur. This is not to say there is a lack of will at either end of the pipeline. Most exporting nations are poor and can’t allocate the resources necessary for effective determination of export quotas. Often the resource managers involved are dedicated individuals who fully realize that it is their country’s resources that are being most affected by overharvesting or bad supervision. One thing CITES does is provide a starting point and an estimate of the trade.

Most importing nations fail to allocate the funding to properly monitor imports, and the United States is no exception to that generalization. And neither exporter nor importer nations have enough personnel with the appropriate taxonomic expertise for the identification of corals and other reef animals. As a result, the trade is huge, and while its regulation looks good on paper, it may be effectively unregulated. Of course, one could also say CITES is effective, as all the regulations are met. This appears to be the attitude of many government managers and some people in the reef aquarium trade.

CITES Appendix II
Listed here are CITES Appendix II classifications of corals and coral reef animals potentially suitable for home aquaria. Only living or recent skeletons are classified; fossils are not subject to the provisions of the convention. No reef species are classified in Appendix I or III.

Phylum Cnidaria
Class Anthozoa
Order Antipatharia (black corals)
Antipatharia spp.
Order Helioporacea
Family Helioporidae (blue corals)
Heliopora coerulea
Order Scleractinia (stony corals)
Scleractinia spp.
Order Stolonifera
Family Tubiporidae (organ pipe corals; all species)

Class Hydrozoa
Order Milleporina
Family Milleporidae (fire corals; all species)

Order Stylasterina
Family Stylasteridae (lace corals; all species)

Phylum Mollusca
Class Bivalvia
Order Veneroida
Family Tridacnidae (giant clams)
Tridacna spp.

Class Gastropoda
Order Caenogastropoda
Family Strombidae
Lobatus gigas

Phylum Chordata
Class Actinoperygii
Order Sygnathiformes
Family Sygnathidae (seahorses)
Hippocampus spp.
Order Perciformes
Family Labridae (wrasses)
Cheilinus undulatus

[ Step 2 ]
United States Regulation Of Collection And Trade
While the CITES regulations govern international trade, the United States also uses regulatory acts to manage the importation of corals and coral reef animals. The most important are the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA).

The ESA was enacted in 1973 to protect organisms from extinction. Any person or group may petition to list a species under the ESA. The petition starts a review process to determine whether or not the species is listed. Once species are listed, their importation and use may be regulated. Five main factors determine if a species is listed:

  • • The extent of habitat alteration, including destruction and modification
    • The extent of exploitation
    • The extent of mortality factors, including extraordinary or “unnatural” outbreaks of disease and predation in controlling the population
    • The extent and efficacy of the present protection and management procedures
    • Other pertinent factors

At the present time, no reef fish and only two species of corals (Acropora palmata and A. cervicornis from the Caribbean) have been listed as “threatened” under the ESA. Commercial trade in those species is prohibited. Importantly for the hobby, however, another seven species of Caribbean corals and 75 species of Indo-Pacific corals are in the midst of the process to determine listing. The National Marine Fisheries Service of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration held a series of workshops in June 2012 on the petition. The purpose of the workshops was to explain to the public the process and information used to decide whether listing one or more of the 82 corals species is warranted and to allow the public to provide additional information that may further inform the decision. The government will eventually decide which corals should be listed sometime in the future.

The MSA regulates fisheries within the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which is 3 to 200 nautical miles offshore. The act presumably could be used to regulate fisheries in reef aquarium fish around Hawaii and American territories.

[ Step 3 ]
State Regulation Of Collection And Trade
State regulations have been affecting the industry for some time. As an example, Florida put laws into place governing the collection of live rock for the aquarium hobby, essentially converting a natural live rock industry into an aquacultured live rock industry. Additionally, other Floridian reef animals are regulated as the state sees fit. With Ricordea, an attractive and popular corallimorpharian, Florida’s regulations have had the effect of raising the cost of the individual polyps to the point where their aquaculture has become economically viable.

Within the United States, coral reef fish are commercially harvested for the aquarium trade primarily from Hawaii and Florida, with smaller fisheries in Puerto Rico, Guam and American Samoa. The most important state is Hawaii, but just how many fish are harvested annually is unknown. In 2010, for example, the reported catch was 702,564 fish; however, historically, about half of the catch reports are not filed, and no catch reports are verified for accuracy. Estimates of true catch are typically 1,500,000 or more.

The primary fish collected in Hawaii is the yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens). The annual harvest recently was estimated to be about 3,000 fish per kilometer (about one fish per linear foot) of coastline in the areas where fishing was allowed (Williams et al., 2009). Hawaii has a series of protected areas where collecting is not allowed, and the abundance of the tangs of the most desirable size (2 to 4 inches) in the protected areas was five times that of their abundances in the adjacent harvested areas. According to Williams’ study, Hawaii’s system of fisheries regulation (for the yellow tang, at least) can work. The protected area in western Hawaii seems to be ensuring the yellow tang’s sustainability. In light of recent events, this is worth remembering. Of course, not everybody agrees with those findings.

New Regulations
Starting about 15 years ago, serious attempts have been made almost annually to completely halt or significantly interrupt the importation of either “sensitive” or even all reef aquarium species. It is reasonable to expect such attempts to continue.

At the national level, laws have been introduced in Congress regularly, but they have not progressed beyond committee evaluations. I doubt that any law having a substantial detrimental impact on the aquarium industry (which is, after all, a multibillion dollar industry) is likely to pass unless there is a significant amount of negative publicity on the industry.

The same cannot be said for legislation at the state level. For example, over the past two years, an attempt to severely curtail or eliminate Hawaii’s live aquarium fish harvest was debated in the press and on the web. Contention about the fishery had been simmering for several years, but the event that started the recent kerfuffle was the discovery of more than 600 fish, mostly yellow tangs, that apparently had died when a collector’s large holding tank failed. It seems the collector then put them into a freezer, and at some later time packed them up in clear plastic bags and threw them in a dumpster. Another dumpster user saw the fish in the bags, took them out, lined them up on the pavement, photographed them and publicized the event. It is hard to think of a better way to say “shut down the collection of yellow tangs” than such a photo published in a newspaper.

The argument raged in the local news and even escalated to the national and international news, where partisans with varying degrees of literary, scientific and debating skills argued the issues for both sides. They sometimes obviously and cheerfully made up, misinterpreted or misused “facts” with great abandon. Articles, comments and discussions having varying degrees of knowledge, expertise and common sense were published in venues from scuba diving magazines to the conservation literature to aquarist publications to fisheries magazines and even birdwatcher newsletters. It really was a classic case of the fundamental human response to a “hot-button” issue. In early May of this year, Hawaii’s state legislature, after significant debate, decided not to pursue the issue — at least for the present.

It would be foolish to say that this is the end of this issue. To me, an observer of environmental politics and issues dating back to before the first Earth Day in 1970, this affair seemed to be yet again a resurrection of many of the familiar arguments about (over)harvesting a natural or wild resource. Normally with such arguments, the issues don’t go away until there is a resolution that all parties can live with. That has definitely not occurred in Hawaii.

Lessons For The Aquarium Hobby
Attempts to eradicate the reef aquarium hobby will probably continue until either the hobby becomes environmentally responsible enough to make those attempts meaningless or it is regulated out of existence. Initially, this means that the hobby’s annual demand for millions of animals simply has to be reduced. Practices need to be changed to provide better survival rates at each step of the importation process. Additionally, the replacement demand must be reduced by the education of hobbyists to increase survival once the animals are in the home aquarium. Most authorities agree that many of the animals imported for the hobby die within a few weeks of collection and most within a few months. Hobbyists need to be educated about which animals can be easily kept and how to keep them.

Additionally, those species that cannot be kept alive for at least a significant portion of their normal life spans should require some evidence of special expertise prior to being sold to the hobbyist. These points are particularly important for novice reef aquarists; the animal mortality rates in new hobbyists’ tanks are outrageously high. Finally, hobbyists have to learn how to breed and maintain their livestock to reduce or eliminate the demand for wild-collected animals. An alternative to purchasing wild-caught organisms must be created, and that alternative must be exercised. 


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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