Ways to Improve the Saltwater Aquarium Industry


Trio of Yellow Tangs
With all of the talk in Hawaii from the anti-aquarium activists, we’re constantly exploring new ways to make our hobby better and more responsible. Before I proceed, I should make it clear that this is not an admission on my part that the aquarium industry is doing anything wrong. Rather, it is merely an exploration into improving an industry that already promotes the aquaculture of its own products in any way possible. Admittedly, some of these improvements are in response to recent criticisms, while others are simply expanding on what is already taking place within the industry. Regardless, they are things I feel will move this hobby forward in a very sustainable way.

For the most part, aquarium breeders have been the aquarium industries shining light. Between the work of standout individuals and that of certain companies, they are all doing great work in promoting education within our hobby and taking great strides toward conquering the finicky nature and breeding habits of many different fish. This obviously relieves stress on wild populations of fish, but this progress, by and large, is completely ignored by the anti-aquarium folks. They continue to take the moral low ground, often ignoring the data that’s right in front of them and attacking a hobby that has probably the least impact in their state when compared to the far more destructive practices of sport fishing, tourism, diving activities, and so many more. To press onward, hobbyists need to not only continue being better fish breeders with the fish they have already had success, but also explore new and more difficult fish. Broadcast spawners like the yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens), who have long pre-settlement larval phases, obviously present some difficulties, but someday these fish will be able to be bred in captivity. Groundbreaking work is being done on a daily basis, and banning the industry outright severely undermines and stifles those efforts.

ORA McCulloch's Clownfish (Amphiprion mccullochi )

ORA is one of the leaders in marketing commercially available captive-bred marine ornamentals

Unfortunately, aquarium breeding activities will not be the only saving grace for our hobby. As we mentioned, many species are very difficult to breed in captivity, which means wild-caught fish will continue to supply the aquarium industry. Because of this, we collectively need to figure out ways to reduce our dependence on wild stock. I’m a big proponent of setting up a white list for species that are not showing signs of declining in the wild or a n0-take list of species that historically don’t do well in captivity or have dwindling numbers on the reefs. Of course, any list created will have to be done so reasonably and without emotion. Anti-aquarium activists don’t feel like wild yellow tang populations are doing well. The yellow tang is their poster boy for declining fish numbers, so they have attached all manner of emotion to that particular species. Fortunately, the data doesn’t paint the same picture as the activists. According to Hawaii’s Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), yellow tang populations have actually been on the rise thanks to no-take zones created around the islands, leading to the reasonable conclusion that the fishery is sustainable.

There are several species, however, that I personally feel should be left in the wild. I don’t suggest completely cutting them off to the hobby completely, as any future breeding attempts would require wild-caught individuals, but fish that simply don’t do well in captivity need to be imported in far fewer numbers. These could include the blue spot jawfish (Opistognathus rosenblatti), cleaner wrasses (Labroides sp.), and moorish idols (Zanclus canescens) to name a few, with the overall goal being limited availability to aquarium hobbyists. All of that being said, I will reinforce the ability of fish breeding activities with one of the biggest success stories in aquarium breeding. In 2010, the mandarin goby was successfully bred in captivity. For years they were regarded as one of the most notoriously difficult fish to keep alive in captivity. Despite this, hobbyists continued to purchase them most likely for their color and different mode of locomotion. Their popularity eventually led to a commercially available captive-bred mandarin gobies from a couple of different species. They were more expensive than their wild-caught counterparts, but they were completely bred and raised in a facility rather than being taken from the ocean. Of course, this no-take list starts with the aquarium hobbyist. If hobbyists stop buying these individuals, then they will likely not be imported as frequently. This will quiet some of the criticisms the hobby is receiving, but they will likely just take a different approach.

Leopard Wrasse

Female Leopard Wrasse

Expanding on the idea of a white list or a no-take list, the industry could impose quotas on certain species. This would ensure that no particular species would be over-harvested, and they could start out as being self-imposed regulations. These quotas would be enforced on the collector or possibly the wholesale level, and would probably be the most effective way to get the anti-aquarium nuts off our backs. That is, until other non-related anthropomorphic activities (e.g. tourism, diving, land development, etc.) around the ocean continue to drive down fish populations and the Snorkel Bob’s of the world need something else about the aquarium industry to gripe about. The obvious and immediate downside to quotas and other regulations would be an immediate price jump in the affected species. I would be willing to accept price jumps if necessary and reasonable, and this alone would potentially curtail some interest in the hobby by those who aren’t truly dedicated to it. Regardless of the route we take, if our hobby doesn’t start regulating itself, some legislative group might step in and try to do it for us.

Again, this article is not an admission of wrongdoing by the aquarium industry. The hobby is taking great steps to improve upon itself every single day and the arguments presented by folks that despise our industry is often skewed and full of inaccuracies. Despite that, we still need to be good stewards of the earth and do what we can to make as little negative impact as possible. Hopefully articles like this open up the dialogue among aquarium keepers and people within the industry. These suggestions may not be the best steps toward the most sustainable future, but we believe they are steps in the right direction.


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  • Anonymous

    Quota’s make total sense, and many fisheries already operate under them.  They are a fundamental part of sensible management plans (for example, the “total allowable catch” numbers being used in PNG).  However, I am beyond firmly against any no-take list, and here’s why.  Harlequin Filefish.  “Doomed to die” fish, right?  Had they been on a no-take list back in 2007, they would’ve surely been on that list based on our “conventional wisdom”.   I would’ve never had the opportunity to get them, learn how to keep them properly, and ultimately blow everyone’s mind by breeding them.  Cleaner wrasses?  Yeah, there’s a perception that they can’t be kept…tell that to the one I have that’s at least 5 years old now, or to the multiple people who’ve spawned this species in captivity (no one has successfully reared them yet however).

    This is why “white lists” and “blacklists” are not the answer.  I’m already aware of a hobbyist in Asia who’s cracked the nut on coralivorous butterflyfish..another “first step”.  And heck, you can get tank-raised corallivores that do not require anything other than regular aquarium foods.  Thus, I can’t get behind any list that bans a species (the exception being common sense bans, like a species that’s perhaps classified as an endangered species, although all the more reason to ensure it’s being bred in captivity, if possible).

  • As someone who has worked for NOAA, I will add that enforcement is a huge issue. There are 2 NOAA officers for the entire Texas/Louisiana coastline. How are we suppose to enforce catch limits when there is only 1 officer per state? With that region, they are primarily dealing with commercial food-fish, but the same principle applies to other regions of the US. Hawaii is a slightly different case because it is an island state, but enforcement is still under-funded. I will also add that “poster children” get a huge percentage of the operating budget, in which case, 99% are not fish (salmon being the exclusion). Most notably are Atlantic and Gulf Sea Turtles, Hawaiian monk seals, and whales everywhere else. While I don’t argue about the severity of their situations, fish are left out in the dust. This also applies to research. Often the only way to be given funding for fish research, is to tie your work back to a more “like-able” animal. This doesn’t begin to scratch the surface on developing nations, where
    in some situations, enforcers don’t even have an operating boat (sited from a popular documentary on Venuata circa 2005). Because of the massive scale of the enforcement effort, laws need to be black and white, dealing primarily at the import and retail level. We cannot expect developing nations to enforce collection permits, but we can cut off the demand for fish. Companies should be allowed x-many fish at a given time, similar to abilone in California, and red snapper here in Texas. This way enforcers simply count your fish, and be done. No questions, no arguments, black and white. There are countless ways to blur lines and change fish names on the books, so visual inspections are the only way to enforce these laws. Education at the consumer/aquarist level is also a key element. Between uneducated sales people at large chains (who will remain nameless…lol), and mom-and-pop shops which, as A.N. discussed previously, are literally fighting for survival, costumer demand will set the tone for fish ordering. I am guilty myself of ordering Moorish Idols for my shop. I will tell people over and over that they cannot keep those fish alive, but people still get literally enraged when they cannot buy them. As a retail salesman, the best I can do is find a good home for them on the rare occasion I order them. With that said, a M.I. never stays in the shop more than 2 weeks. At the same time, those fish are never on sale at the wholesale level, which means as many fish as they order, every one is sold withing a week or so.

    Also, it may be time to consider actually helping out the captive breeders. Price makes a huge difference when selling fish. ORA use to breed the gulf pygmy seahorse (H. zosterae), but quit breeding the seahorse as they could not sell them. The reason? You could by wild-caught seahorses for 50 cents cheaper. No matter how often you engrave into people’s minds that captive bred animals are just better in every way, money will still be the deciding factor. It is hard to justify to a novice aquarist that a wild-caught, mean as hell, strawberry dottyback (or most of that family for that matter) is 7-10 dollars, while a captive bred orchid dottyback is between 35 and 50 dollars. Someone new to the hobby is going to go with the cheaper fish every time, even though every veteran hobbyist will tell you the orchid was the better purchase.

    Last 2 cents, thank you to Aquanerd and the other reef blogs for taking a practical outlook to the problem. With all the snorkel bob’s out there, it is easy to get swept up into a literal screaming match. The best thing we can do is be rational, educate, and voice our opinion in a sane manner. I think in the end, people will listen to the rational over the rantings.

    • Anonymous

      I’ll take issue with the last sentence – the outcome of Hawaii’s county council votes in 2011, where they moved to resolve to ban aquarium collection, was driven in large part by emotional debates and misinformation, ignoring testimony from state agencies who say the fishery is sustainable.  Clearly, ranting IS winning out, at least for now.  I find that very alarming.

  • Very good Idea… There is also allot the hobbyist can do. I
    think it is like 1 in 3 corals or fish actually make it into the hobbyist reef
    tank from collection. We need better transportation and holding. We need to
    weed out the bad stores like petco and some of our lfs that are not set up for
    saltwater or have bad practices.


    We need to educate our lfs. Example near me there is a lfs
    that had 8 yellow tangs in something like a 55 gallon aquarium and they were
    starving. Most of their fish actually didn’t look good. This kind of stuff
    needs to stop because it does not make the hobby looks good and gives those
    against us more ammo.


    What we post on forums can also give them fodder. Example on
    a forum recently there was a picture of a tank in something like a 5 gallon
    aquarium.. This stuff is not needed. As a reef keeper we need to take some responsibility
    and provide the best conditions and care for our animals. We need to provide
    them the required space. These people against the hobby do troll the forums and
    use our post against the hobby.


    We can purchase from breeders even if prices are higher than
    wild caught fish.


    Matt I have an issue with the collection of cleaner wrasses
    because of their low survival rate but also because they serve a valuable
    service to the ocean. By removing them other fish may die due to parasites or
    disease. Those that have the resources or are trying to breed these fish like universities
    should have access to these fish but the public should not..

    • Anonymous

      David, the Cleaner Wrasse as your example – none of the institutions are trying to breed it – it’s all HOBBYIST effort at this point.  That’s the crux of the issue – there are far more private hobbyist breeders out there than any institutional efforts.  I completely agree…the “average hobbyist” should not be buying fish like Harlequin Filefish or Cleaner Wrasses.  So there’s a cost benefit here that must be weighed – in the US alone you close off the opportunity for any one of 700,000 hobbyists to potentially be the one to try something and fundamentally change things.  That’s what you lose when you *ban* a species from the hobby or say only public institutions should be allowed to keep them.  We’d not know how to breed Harlequin Files were it not for my efforts as a hobbyist; so too it could be that the Cleaner Wrasse breeding mystery is cracked by a hobbyist, or that hobbyists learn and improve husbandry techniques that in turn inform what some institutional breeder is able to accomplish.  An unfortunate side effect of allowing public access to fish is that some people who shouldn’t have a species will still wind up with it – there’s no way to formally say “oh, well hobbyist Matt Pedersen can buy it but hobbyist David Polzin can’t”.  Since we can’t enforce those types of rules, we instead rely on self-policing and a collective knowledge base to a large extent, and I think these days the internet does help that a lot.  Still, there are ALWAYS going to be bad apples, bad stores, and bad hobbyists – must the good ones pay the price? Frankly, I’m all for better regulation of the retail and wholesale pet trade – I was shocked to learn that it is maybe atypical that Illinois, where I worked in retail, is perhaps one of the few states that licenses and inspects pet shops.  Such a simple effort could go a long way to bettering the trade by policing out the bad players in the supply chain.

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