Life in a Fishbowl

The tanks in most aquarium shops display a beautiful abundance of underwater life. Striped butterfly fish zip around deep purple coral. Orange anthias dance around bulbous sea anemones. Press your nose to the glass, and, for a moment, you can imagine snorkeling in pristine waters off Fiji. Saltwater aquariums are a bit of aquatic escapism, and it’s easy to understand why an estimated two million hobbyists around the world (about 800,000 of them in the US) keep saltwater tropical fish.

Look closer, however, and you may notice some anthias floating upside down – dead – or an expired anemone dissolving into a gelatinous mass. Indeed, the scene is an apt metaphor for the aquarium trade: Behind the dazzling spectacle of tropical fish lurks a murky industry plagued by poor maintenance, disorganization, little oversight, and a deteriorating environment.

Like most of the fish that inhabit saltwater aquariums around the world, those butterfly fish and anthias went on sale only after surviving an unlikely, and for many others, deadly journey from their original home – a real reef in the South Pacific. The odyssey usually begins in the clear waters off Indonesia or the Philippines, where some of the world’s largest coral reef systems sustain a bounty of fish, invertebrates, and marine fauna. These are some of the most complex ecosystems in the world – the rainforests of the sea. Among the natural inhabitants, however, swim intruders. Men from seaside villages – a veritable army of divers – harvest millions of fish each year from these waters. Most use nets and quick reflexes to capture their prey, but some employ squirt bottles filled with a toxic cyanide solution that momentarily stuns the fish. Once captured, the fish are placed in plastic bags filled with seawater, then brought to shore. This abduction is the first step in the global supply chain that keeps American aquariums stocked.

For each fish retrieved, the diver will be paid mere pennies by exporters, who will gather thousands of bagged fish together, box them, truck them from the beach to the airport, and put them on a jumbo jet bound for Los Angeles. En route, most of the fish – as many as eight in ten – will die, falling victim to stale water, lack of oxygen, and the trauma of transport. In Los Angeles, wholesalers on “Fish Row,” a street at the center of the aquatic trade, will receive the shipments, quarantine and acclimate the fish, then distribute them to aquarium supply stores around the country.

The trade in ornamental aquarium fish damages the environment at nearly every step, resulting in depleted and poisoned reefs, and millions of dead fish. “It’s a huge problem that slips under the radar,” says Drew Weiner, director of Reef Protection International, a project of Earth Island Institute that educates the public about the aquarium trade. “It doesn’t get much press because it’s not the rainforest, but it should.”

A Destructive Trade

The trade in global marine ornamentals was described in “From Ocean to Aquarium,” a 2003 report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP). The study portrays an unregulated industry, one in which destructive harvesting practices are degrading natural habitats. “Reefs are not doing well at all,” says Colette Wabnitz, one of the authors of the UNEP report. “The picture is very bleak.”

“Although reefs cover less than one quarter of one percent of the marine environment, they are considered to be amongst the most biologically rich and productive ecosystems on Earth,” states the UNEP report. Since then, a raft of studies has shown that reef systems around the globe are in crisis. Climate change and the steady rise in ocean temperatures are wreaking havoc on reefs. Over-fishing – whether for food or for sport – and the use of dynamite to kill fish further degrade reef ecosystems. While the harvesting of reef fish for aquariums may not be the greatest threat to overall reef health, there is little question that the practice is exacerbating an already dire situation.

Paramount among environmental concerns is the widespread use of cyanide by divers. “Habitat destruction is caused by cyanide, and the mortality of the fish being captured with cyanide is very high,” says Peter Rubec, a fishery scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Although the use of cyanide by fish harvesters is illegal in most countries, the UNEP report found that it remains widespread, and that most fish stunned with cyanide die shortly thereafter. It also found that cyanide kills corals and other invertebrates not targeted by divers.

Rubec, after spending six years performing cyanide tests in the Philippines in the 1990s, developed what he hoped would be the universally adopted cyanide detection test. The Environmental Protection Agency, American Public Health Association, and the American Water Works Association all approved the test, but bureaucratic hang-ups prevented its widespread adoption by governments and other nonprofit monitoring agencies. Today there remains no generally accepted test to determine if fish have been stunned with cyanide.

In recent years, education in the Philippines and Indonesia about cyanide’s destructive effects has resulted in a decrease in its application, and today some observers are optimistic. “Cyanide usage is down,” says Eric Cohen of Los Angeles-based Sea Dwelling Creatures, one of the largest wholesalers in the country. “You can’t even compare it to 10 years ago. The fish are so much healthier today.”

Besides cyanide, the biggest threat posed by the trade in ornamental reef fish is the simple threat of over-fishing. “Over-fishing is the major problem facing coral reefs,” says Gregor Hodgson, director of Los Angeles-based Reef Check. Hodgson conducted a survey of reefs in 1997 and found troubling signs even then. “Wherever we looked, the indicator species, like lobsters and giant clams, were largely absent. These are mostly things people like to eat. But also absent were things like butterfly fish, which people like to look at.”

A Mom and Pop Business

The trade in live marine stock is big business, worth an estimated $300 million annually. That wealth, however, is spread across a vast network of fishermen, middlemen, retailers and hobbyists. “It’s a mom-and-pop business from start to finish. There’s no Coca-Cola,” says Hodgson. Exporters in the South Pacific work independently. Wholesalers sell to thousands of retailers, many of whom barely turn a profit, who in turn peddle fish to a hobbyist base that has come to expect cheap merchandise.

And just as no single company has a majority share of the trade in marine animals, neither is there one regulatory agency with the authority and scope to effectively police the trade. A disparate network of NGOs and government agencies all advocate for reef health, but only sometimes work in concert with one another.

Reef Check is an organization with an ambitious mission. The largest reef-monitoring group in the world, it has volunteers in 90 countries, and partners with the US government, foreign countries, and a range of nonprofits. But the scale of the industry makes it nearly impossible for Reef Check or any other organization to make headway in ensuring a healthy, sustainable trade. “We want to work with industries to figure out how to make money from natural resources without screwing them up,” says Hodgson. “But it’s been totally unregulated.” As a result, there are no internationally accepted standards for the health of reefs, or the collection and transportation of fish.


Establishing such a standard has proven next to impossible. Among the recommendations in the UNEP report was the creation of a third-party certification. Certify sustainably harvested fish, the thinking goes, and the educated consumer will demand them, much in the way organic food has become popular. This task has fallen to the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC), a nonprofit with offices around the world. Since 1998, MAC has attempted to create a system for certifying the trade from source to sale. But results have been hard to come by. “Their intentions are right on,” says Weiner of Reef Protection International. “But they really haven’t accomplished much.”

A recent turnover of key executives has ushered in what many hope will be a new era for the organization, and today, even MAC officials acknowledge their past failings. “We’ve spent millions of dollars with little results,” says David Mainenti, MAC’s interim executive director. Funded mainly by grants from foundations, MAC has spent years pursuing ambitious, if unachievable, goals. For example, MAC’s efforts to create a network of certified divers and exporters proved impossibly complex. The biggest problem was getting divers to reform their practices. “It’s not like [by] going through certification, they’ll make more money,” says Mainenti. “Their thinking is so short-term. We went into Indonesia and the Philippines because those are the countries that were using cyanide. Those were the sexy projects, but we could have gone after lower-hanging fruit.” Getting retailers to reform proved equally difficult. “Everyone already has their supply chains,” says Mainenti. “When we certified someone, it wasn’t like these world-class stores were suddenly going to start using our fish.”

Fiji.10.04.045_CMYK.jpgcourtesy of Drew Weiner Climate change, over-fishing, and the use of cyanide by those
capturing fish threaten reef ecosystems.

MAC’s slow progress has drawn criticism from many in the industry, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Rubec. “I’ve accused them of green-washing,” he says. “They are providing cover for an illegal marine trade that is destroying coral reefs and killing fish. Some people say give them another chance, but they’ve had eight years. How many more do you need?”

MAC’s failure to establish a reliable supply of certifiable fish has turned off retailers as well. “It costs money to get certified, and they don’t have a very good supply line set up,” says Mitch Gibbs of Fishey Business in Bowling Green, KY. “Theoretically, the fish coming through them should have higher survival rates. But I’m not sure they do. I think they’re working on it, but they’ve been working on it for years.”

Michael Janes, a retailer in Phoenix, AZ, says his store, AquaTouch, isn’t MAC-certified. “MAC is giving the sense that they have great plans, but that implementation is still a ways off,” Janes says. “They kind of put the cart before the horse early on when they went to retailers first and tried to get us to sign up for MAC,” he says. “They should have put all their efforts into collection at first, then come to the retailers when they had a supply of fish.”

Without a steady supply of certified fish, Janes has gone straight to the source, contracting with exporters in Indonesia who send the fish directly to him. “I’ve cut out the middleman,” says Janes. It’s a move that’s increasingly popular these days, but one that troubles wholesalers and conservationists alike. Wholesalers worry about losing business, and conservationists fear that fish will perish without trained distributors to quarantine and acclimate them. But Janes says besides making sense economically, it’s working for the fish. “We’ve got annual mortality that’s less than four percent,” he says. “And I know the fishermen doing the collecting. I know they’re not using cyanide.”

Supply and Demand

In addition to contracting directly with exporters, Janes is among retailers who are looking to aquaculturists for a supply of captive-bred fish to supplant those harvested from reefs. “We haven’t sold wild clownfish in five years or more,” he says, referring to the species most successfully bred in captivity. But aquaculture has its limitations, and for years, clownfish were the beginning and end of the captive- bred menu. Today, aquaculturists are successfully breeding gobies, blennies, cardinalfish, and seahorses – an array of species popular with hobbyists. This may relieve some over-harvesting, but aquaculture will never be able to supply all the fish that the aquarium hobby demands.

Saltwater fish need more room than freshwater fish to breed, and it takes a reef to support reef fish. Simply put, large-scale captive breeding of reef fish is not a realistic option. “You would need enclosed in-ocean pens,” says Evan Tyler, an aquarist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “This is why almost 80 percent of reef fish in aquariums are caught in the wild.” Monterey is able to breed a small number of reef fish, enough to stock some of its exhibits. But, says Tyler, “We don’t have the room to culture reef fish here.” And if Monterey can’t do it, probably no one can. When the Monterey Bay Aquarium does buy fish, it gets them from LA’s Sea Dwelling Creatures.

Fiji.03.01.022_bw.jpgcourtesy of Drew WeinerClownfish are one of the few species of tropical fish that can be easily
bred in captivity.

Captive-bred fish can make for good business, however. “It’s a marketing technique,” says Janes. “If you say, ‘Here’s a captive-bred fish that isn’t having a negative effect on the reef,’ the customer is willing to pay a few more dollars for it.” Wabnitz, who co-authored the UNEP report, commends the advances in aquaculture, but acknowledges its limitations. “For some species, the technology is there. Trying to develop it for other species would be good,” she says. “But then people say you’re removing livelihood from people in developing countries.”

Whether the fish are captive-bred or wild, however, hobbyists have come to expect them to be inexpensive. “Wild clownfish cost five dollars,” says Reef Protection International’s Weiner. “That encourages a disposable hobby. We don’t have a disposable hobby when it comes to other pets.”

Mitigating Losses

“The consumer should be the one that’s aware,” says Wabnitz. “Educating the consumer is one of the single most important aspects of any trade. The food trade is just the same. Look at climate change. People are starting to take action because they know more. Nothing is really black and white. I believe that there are aspects or certain places where the trade is sustainable. But overall, it’s probably not.”

From MAC to Reef Check to Reef Protection International, plenty of organizations are trying to encourage healthy reefs and a sustainable aquarium trade, but no one is calling for an outright ban on the aquarium fish trade. Moreover, some see the trade as a way to lift poor divers out of poverty. “The aquarium industry brings value to the coral reefs around the world,” says Sea Dwelling Creatures’ Cohen. “If these local people are earning a living off the reefs, they have a reason, for the first time, to protect their resource. They understand this very quickly when they’re earning a living off it. The aquarium industry has given them a reason to protect their ocean. I’ve seen divers in Fiji turn over boats that are fishing in a destructive manner. What the industry really needs is to be better managed on the resource level. That’s what everyone wants: a sustainable industry.”

In 2000, Congress passed the Coral Reef Conservation Act, a bill allocating millions of dollars for research into reef health, but did little in the way of reforming the trade. Other pieces of proposed legislation call for a moratorium on US imports of tropical fish. And indeed, putting an end to the trade is an attractive option to many conservationists. “If the government put a complete moratorium on all trade, that might be the best thing,” says the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Tyler. “You have public aquariums where you can come and see your sea life. You don’t need to keep it at home.”

But criminalizing a popular hobby is unlikely to put an end to it. “If you did try and make the trade illegal, it would continue and go underground, and then we couldn’t control it,” says Cohen. “There’s no government that’s going to go around the world and police the reefs. The industry has a reason to protect these reefs and make sure the fish are surviving. This is all part of a managed fishery, which is what our generation has to do.”

David Gelles is a writer living in Berkeley, CA. His work has appeared in The New York Times and Forbes.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.