Anti-Aquarium Industry Rhetoric to Watch Out For

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Here is a piece by The Pacific Fisheries Coalition, which is a project of the Hawaii Audubon Society. I was very tempted to not even show this video, but I felt it was important to discuss the anti-aquarium industry rhetoric currently circulating on the net. Recently, the hobby has been under attack from conservationists and self-promoting individuals who have a vested interest in seeing the aquarium industry crater. Neither of these groups present verifiable data. Instead, as the video above will reiterate, they toss out a bunch of numbers, hoping a few of them stick. These groups are comfortable enough to make inaccurate, or even outright wrong, blanket statements and they try to appeal to the emotions of the viewer. They claim that the aquarium industry does nothing more than rape wild reefs, eventually killing whatever we take only to come back and take some more.

I have poured over this video a few times and have listed below several of the things the video highlights. Along with those highlights, I have also included a response.

Continue reading below for our responses to the video. I apologize in advance for the responses being quite long.

From the Video: Most of the fish are taken from the Pacific Ocean, and particularly from Hawaii
From AquaNerd: While a majority of the fish collected for the saltwater aquarium industry do come from the Pacific Ocean, Hawaii isn’t the only source. According to the Marine Aquarium Council, over half of the fish caught for the aquarium trade come from the Indonesia and the Philippines. The remaining fish are taken from several other parts of the world, including the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea. Yes, Hawaii exports a lot of fish, but trying to make the claim that Hawaii is the major source of aquarium fish is misleading.

From the Video: Fish are collected in ways that damage the coral reefs. Paraphrasing from the video, fish collecting techniques can include collectors draping large gill nets over corals, hitting corals with sticks to scare fish out of hiding and/or into gill nets, breaking off coral branches to better access hiding fish, using cyanide to help catch fish, and piercing swim bladders of fish caught in deeper water
From AquaNerd: Fish collecting usually involves a net and some form of diving gear. In most parts of the world, divers cannot afford expensive SCUBA gear or large gill nets that they have to maintain. Instead, they choose to use smaller nets and either snorkeling gear or breath holding. I’m not saying that harmful practices are not used by some collectors, but many collectors are aware of the consequences of using things like gill nets, sticks to hit corals, and cyanide. The act of piercing a fish’s swim bladder is actually more beneficial to the fish than not. If a fish is not properly degassed, its swim bladder would expand and extrude out of its mouth and other body openings. The fish often recover from this technique with few to no recurring issues.

From the Video:Many fish perish before they even make it to aquariums.
From AquaNerd: Yes, fish do perish a long the supply chain. However, their losses are not as inflated as many claim them to be. According to data presented on the FortheFishes website, from 2000-2007 5,841,259 million animals were collected (or about 730,000 individuals collected per year) from the Big Island of Hawaii and Oahu. This number also includes invertebrates like hermit crabs and snails. Of those collected, 5,818,460 animals were sold (or approximately 727,000 annually). The difference in the number caught vs the number sold over that 8 year period is a mere 22,799 individuals (or 0.39%) that weren’t accounted for. Assuming the term unaccounted is code word for died, less than 3000 fish die annually in the collector’s hands. It’s a shame that any animal has to die, but advances in both technology and husbandry techniques are minimizing losses every day.

From the Video: Of the fish that do make it to the aquariums, few thrive in captivity.
From AquaNerd: This is completely untrue. Many fish thrive in home aquariums. In fact, some have even successfully been spawned in the home tank. Additionally, advances in the hobby have made it possible to care for previously difficult fish. Sure, there are still fish that are imported that do not fare well in captivity, and I do not support purchasing fish like that. But claiming that most fish cannot thrive in home aquariums is just not true.

From the Video: 98% of saltwater aquarium fish are taken from the wild (compared to only 2% of freshwater fish).
From AquaNerd: I would really like to see the hard data on these numbers. In the past few years aquacultured livestock has become increasingly available. On top of that, it would seem that hobbyists actually prefer to purchase aquacultured fish. I would highly doubt that 98% of all saltwater aquarium fish are wild caught.

From the Video: 80% of saltwater aquarium are taken from Hawaii.
From AquaNerd: Again, this is a number that simply isn’t true. As I mentioned above the Marine Aquarium Council (or MAC) has a much different number to report. According to them, over half of the fish available in the saltwater fish trade come from Indonesia and the Philipines. The remaining percentage is then spread out over multiple collecting areas like the Caribbean, Red Sea, Japan, etc.

From the Video: Fish that are taken off the reef cannot replace themselves.
From AquaNerd: While fish cannot replace themselves on the reef, they can be bred in home aquariums and commercial facilities. This approach can’t be applied to all of the fish taken from the wild, but more and more fish are being aquacultured and this will relieve some of the stresses on wild populations.

From the Video: 60% of saltwater fish taken from the wild die on route.
From AquaNerd: Again, this is a number I would like to see some research on. An industry that loses that much of its product would not be as successful as this one is, plain and simple. I have worked in fish stores and have conversed with may others nationwide. While each store experienced some loss, it was nowhere near 60%. And given the less than 6% losses for collectors and wholesalers combined (according to FortheFishes for Hawaiian fish), where does this 60% figure come from?

From the Video: 400,000 fish taken from Hawaiian reefs each year.
From AquaNerd: I would like to see more evidence for these numbers, but they are in line with the numbers from the FortheFishes website.

From the Video: Aquarium water needs to exactly like theĀ  ocean.
From AquaNerd: There is some merit in this statement. However, there is room for differences. The aquarium’s water doesn’t have to be identical to that found on the reef. More importantly, it has to be stable. Fluctuating water parameters are what really do the damage.

From the Video: Collectors prefer smaller, juvenile fish. Fewer fish are allowed to mature.
From AquaNerd: The problem with this statement is not as simple as those above, but I will try to simplify. It is better that the aquarium industry targets juvenile fish because they aren’t sexually mature and are not part of the breeding population. Additionally, older fish typically have a higher fecundity. What this means is older fish lay more eggs, their eggs are larger, and their eggs are healthier. If the aquarium industry targeted larger fish, it would be more detrimental to future populations.

From the Video: Aquacultured fish are a good alternative.
From AquaNerd: I agree with this statement, but one has to realize that not every fish can be aquacultured because of the way they spawn. Clownfish, cardinalfish, and gobies are all great candidates. Tangs and other broadcast spawners are not, at least at this point.

From the Video: Curators at public aquariums have the expertise to take care of the complicated saltwater environment to keep the fish alive.
From AquaNerd: The insinuation here is that aquarium hobbyists cannot take care of saltwater fish or provide the right environment for them to thrive. This isn’t true. For starters, some public aquariums are worse off than a casual hobbyist’s aquarium. On top of that, having a degree doesn’t make you an expert in aquarium keeping. Aquarium experience, on the other hand, is a better measuring stick. I graduated with a degree in marine biology. Despite this, I gained most of my aquarium related knowledge directly from experience and personal research. The degree does help, and it gives many people an edge, but plenty of scientists do not have a single clue on how to care for living fish. Ask them to dissect a fish and you won’t have any issues, but keeping them alive is a whole other store.

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  • reef

    I would say that about 98% of saltwater fish being collection is accurate.
    I am a importer and i hardly see any culture stock other than clownfish.

  • Chris

    I agree about the 98% comment… (basically only clownfish and a few cardinals/pseudo's here and there)… I liked the comment about small fish and puppies. A baseless and ignorant comment to instill fear and rage in viewers. Basically 80-90% of that vid is a joke =/