Saving Nemo: The truth about the marine aquarium trade


WWF-Philippines now works on practical solutions for a sustainable marine aquarium trade. Its initial recommendations are the following: 

1. Avoid hard-to-keep fish, especially cleaner wrasses, mandarin dragonets, Moorish idols and all types of seahorses. Mortality rates for these fish are estimated at 99% so it is best to ban them entirely.  

2. Promote hardy fish. Many of the world’s most successful aquaria feature hardy but still colorful clownfish, damsels, gobies, wrasses and surgeonfish. Survival rates are far better and hobbyists end up spending much less for upkeep and stock replacement. 

3. Shift to artificial corals and invertebrates. Unless you are a reef aquarium expert with cutting-edge equipment and a bottomless bank account, steer clear of all stationary invertebrates like corals, sponges and sea anemones. Their care is dramatically more complex than already difficult-to-keep reef fish and mortality rates are alarming. Moreover, harvesting wild hard corals for both the pet and curio trades is illegal. If tank-raised corals are unavailable, then artificial corals and reef blocks are excellent alternatives. The best part? You’ll only ever buy them once.  

4. Shift to aquacultured fish and invertebrates. In stark contrast to freshwater aquarium fish, 95% of all marine fish and invertebrates remain wild-caught. Fortunately, the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) recently approved a program where fish farmers can apply for wildlife ranching permits, allowing aquaculturists to collect a preset number of wild individuals as brood-stock in exchange for the release of 30% of juveniles back into the wild. Farmed seahorses and clownfish are popular in other countries–they might soon be available for Filipino hobbyists. 

5. Raise the prices of saltwater fish and invertebrates. The reality of marine fishkeeping is that it is not for everyone. Higher prices limit the hobby to those with the time, resources and discipline to keep the animals alive. More importantly, this translates to better incomes for local fishermen, who will earn more from catching less fish. 

Finally, hobbyists, pet stores and traders must self-regulate to ensure that new inductees are accorded the proper knowledge, training and respect for life needed to keep marine fish mortalities at an absolute minimum. 

The marine aquarium trade certainly has its merits. Corals, giant clams and a growing list of fishes can now be cultured not just for profit–but to someday repopulate Earth’s denuded reefs. More importantly, the hobby cultivates a love and understanding of nature and its myriad processes.

Back at the fish store, a fresh batch of kids enters. Stopping to inspect the rows of aquaria, they fall silent.  

As they watch and wonder at the swirling melee of color, I look back at another boy, gaping wide-eyed at a tank-full of "real live seahorses" almost 30 years ago. It all happened in Cartimar–where marines live, but never grow old. -

Recently chosen by Reader's Digest Asia as a Philippine opinion leader, Gregg Yan serves as the Communications Manager of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-Philippines). He's a newly-minted master scuba diver who aims to make the world better through words and pictures. Add him on Facebook if you want to talk.

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