Is the Saltwater Aquarium Hobby Sustainable?

large public reef aquarium

Are Saltwater Aquariums Sustainable

A recent New York Times article highlighting the saltwater aquarium hobby asks the question, “Is the saltwater aquarium hobby sustainable?”. There are currently over 700,000 saltwater home aquariums in the US alone, and the article and opinions from a few scientists fall on both sides of this situation. Some argue that the massive collecting of Florida invertebrates is putting a strain on the ecosystem, while others suggest that aquarium-minded collectors are a special type of fisherman and are concerned with the sustainability of the fishery.

The aquarium hobby has been growing constantly for the last 30 years. Gone are the days of medium-sized aquariums filled with cheap decorations, undergravel filters, and a few fish. Today, the modern reef aquarium keeper tries his or her hardest to mimic nature down to the very last detail. We use live rock, invertebrates, fish, and corals lifted straight from the ocean…and this harvesting of the reefs can have an impact.

Harvesting corals from the ocean has been a hot-button issue with many people for years. Fear of man’s impact on nature has led to many regulations being put in place. And over the years several organizations have arisen to increase awareness of the threat to coral reefs. But a new issue has arisen, one which this New York Times article focuses on, and that is the harvesting of reef invertebrates, specifically the blue legged hermit crabs.

The blue legged hermit crabs are native to Florida and do a marvelous job of eating detritus and algae in both nature and in our aquariums. They stay small and do not slaughter aquarium snails to the extent that most hermit crabs do, making them extremely attractive to aquarium owners. Their increasing popularity has lead to massive harvesting of these and other invertebrates, raising red flags with scientists. If a species or group of different species is over-harvested, there can be a cascading effect in the reef ecosystem. The invertebrates that graze on algae will diminish significantly in overall numbers and corals may be overtaken by algae, which can cause coral death.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, some scientists feel the aquarium hobby is sustainable, citing the fact that most collectors behave differently than the traditional fishermen. The collectors are viewed as a more responsible group of people. They understand the ecosystem more and are less likely to over-harvest any one particular animal. Livestock collectors also care more for the environment and will welcome most regulations on the industry to some extent.

The article is a great read for any of those interested. I personally feel that this hobby, overall, is NOT as sustainable as most people assume it to be. There is a lot of die-off that occurs en route from collection to fish store and even more after the livestock has been added to the tank. Most people simply don’t see just how many fish, corals, and invertebrates die. Additionally, there are too many people that get into saltwater and reef aquariums with very little knowledge of the animals themselves or how to properly run a well-balanced and stable system. They buy the equipment, kill several fish, then get out of the hobby. I’ll get off my soap box for now, but please keep in mind that this hobby does have an impact on nature and we need to do what we can to make that impact as small as possible.

Article and Images taken from New York Times.


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  • I've been keeping aquariums for about 20 years and the single reason that I've never ventured into salt water is this. Just go to a good fish store and find the captive breed saltwater fish. The most I've ever seen is 2 or 3 species. Move into the invertebrate field and the captive bred species get even less frequent. That means that just about every single fish you will ever see in a salt water aquarium was from the ocean. I personally can't support a hobby that has such such a blatant environmental impact.

    Al least with many corals there is the possibility of captive propagation. When you see hundreds of pounds of live rock and coral and even crushed coral substrate, it should raise the question, where did this come from… I personally won't have a reef ransacked at my expense.

  • deeproot

    I think your view is very narrow sided. If marine aquariums continue to grow in popularity then more and more species will be aqua cultured. This is very evident due to the fact that more and more species are aqua cultured every month. Reef keepers do not want to destroy the reef but want to sustain it.

    • i agree that aquacultured and maricultured species will become more available and i agree that many responsible reef keepers will want to sustain a reef. but how many aquarium keepers are not responsible? how many aquarium keepers don't even perform the basics to keep their livestock healthy? i know tons of people who don't even do water changes. i know even more who constantly are losing fish. aquaculture can only happen for a limited number of species. granted, the practice is growing, which is phenomenal, but most fish cannot or have not been bred in captivity. for example, how many yellow tangs are taken from the ocean versus bred/raised in captivity? yellow tangs are an extremely popular fish, especially with inexperienced aquarium keepers. a lot of them die en route to the fish store and many die after they get to the hobbyist's aquarium. another fish is the kaudern's cardinal fish…and this one is bred in captivity. aquarium keepers nearly drove this fish to extinction. and even though they can be captive bred, many people still purchase/collect wild ones.

  • I think both sides of this argument are valid: the environmental impact of aquaculture is serious and needs to be addressed, and yet, aquaculture can also be an important component of conservation efforts.

    I think a reasonable compromise would be to require saltwater aquarium owners and pet stores to acquire licenses before they are allowed to keep marine animals. Not only would this limit educated and responsible people as potential owners, but would allow for better regulation over what species are harvested, and in what numbers.

    I work at a local pet store in my community and am proud to say that we always attempt to purchase corals from local fraggers and propagators over distributors. I hope that more businesses and owners can adopt a similar mindset in the future.