Earth Island News
Reef Protection International
Ocean conservation has become a hot topic. With the release of two major reports on the status of ocean health from the Pew Commission and the US Commission on Ocean Policy, there is growing consensus that the oceans are in trouble. Overfishing, pollution, climate change, and overdevelopment all continue to wreak havoc on the fisheries and coral reefs of the world.
Coastal development threatens coastal waters, overfishing has caused the collapse of countless commercially important fisheries worldwide, and accidental and deliberate introduction of invasive species (often by aquarists) alters ecosystems. As harmful as the direct impacts of humans are, indirect effects are also threatening ecosystems, including coral reefs. Sea surface warming has resulted in increasing numbers of mass coral bleaching events that have affected nearly every reef community worldwide. In some of the richest areas, bleaching-related mortality reduced coral coverage by 9799 percent. Coral communities in the Caribbean have shifted from coral-dominated to algal-dominated systems, most of which also show little potential for recovery over human generational time scales.
High demand for wild-collected marine coral reef species primarily from the US, the UK, other EU countries, and Japan has caused measurable declines in coral reef populations in Indonesia, the Philippines, and the South Pacific. Such collection and harvest intensifies existing pressures stemming from development (causing habitat reduction), coastal pollution, and global climate change. This problem is further compounded by destructive collection methods. Chemicals such as sodium cyanide (used to stun fish for capture), over-harvesting, and high mortality rates due to insensitive shipping and poor husbandry practices along the supply chain all contribute to coral reef degradation attributed to the aquarium trade.
An estimated 1520 million marine ornamental fish are removed from coral reefs each year for the aquarium trade. One to two million corals are removed each year, along with 40,00060,000 kg of live rock and unknown millions of other reef invertebrates on which records are not kept. The harvest is increasing by 1230 percent per year and has been for the past decade, with the United States importing 80 percent or more of the total. As the US Commission on Ocean Policy says, The United States has a particular responsibility to help eliminate destructive harvesting practices and ensure the sustainable use of these resources. Collection for the marine aquarium trade has resulted in net population losses of up to 60 percent of targeted species.
It has long been recognized that unsustainable and exploitative business practices have stained the marine aquarium hobby. Despite attempts at reform, the problem persists and, as evidenced by a coral reef conservation bill (HR 4928) recently introduced by Rep. Ed Case (D-HI), is now on legislators radar screens.
People involved in the aquarium hobby or trade can choose between self-governance or eventual strict legislation governing the trade. A major first step towards achieving self-governance would be to pledge to eliminate destructive harvesting practices and ensure sustainability for targeted species. Part of this pledge must include the creation of an Inappropriate Species List of animals that people will stop buying, selling, importing, or capturing. Although such lists exist, none are used (except voluntarily by a few sources) by the worlds largest consumer, the US. Second, the trade must work harder to commit to conservation results using current certification schemes and demand that viable enforcement strategies are adopted and adhered to. Finally, there must be an increase in public education highlighting responsible marine livestock buying and improved husbandry. This would require a stronger commitment to reduce overexploitation through increasing the captive-breeding potential of all marine aquarium species and provide the consumer an alternative to wild-caught marine aquarium livestock.
Aquarium hobbyists have an opportunity to demonstrate leadership, take part in the reform process, and ultimately affect positive change for coral reef conservation.