The Affects Of The Aquarium Trade On Reefs, And What We Need To Do To Heal Them


I don't know if anyone is interested, but I wrote a paper on what the title says for school. I would love constructive critisicm/debate about what we need to do to help our reefs recover.

Warning, it is a long read, 10 pages when printed (was double spaced but I took it to single space so less room).

And here's my references if anyone wants them References

Crisanto sorted his catch in a humid, nondescript concrete building that whirred and hummed as pumps moved water through hundreds of acrylic cubes containing brightly colored tropical reef fishes. A fisherman with weather-beaten skin, apparently in his 40s, he has collected aquarium fishes for most of his adult life (Talbot, 2016, para. 1). His village, on the Philippine island of Cebu, is a place foreigners visit predominantly for its palm-fringed beaches. Tourists flock to the island, but the only islanders leaving in droves for foreign destinations are its fish (Para. 2). Crisanto was surprised to learn that his country provides the majority of saltwater aquarium fish to global markets. He was also shocked to hear what foreign aquarium hobbyists pay for fish — in some cases a hundred or more times what the fisher makes for each one. What he does know is the poverty that surrounds him. More than 66 percent of the region’s families are low-income or poor according to government statistics (Para. 3). Crisanto is one of many people who survive soley on the aquarium trade. However, even though he is just trying to survive and feed his family, he and all the others are destroying the reefs. Through destructive fish harvesting techniques like live cyanide poisoning, blasting, and breaking the corals to get at fish, the reefs are destroyed bit by bit. To solve this problem more regulations are needed. These will ban destructive harvesting techniques, put a bag limit on the amount of fish and corals they can harvest, and create protected regions where the reefs can be preserved untouched. Enforcing the regulations will start healing the reefs as they are allowed to recover from over harvesting and destructive techniques. Since less fish are brought in, supply decreases, demand increases, and prices go up. This means the harvesters like Crisanto can harvest less fish for more money. It enables them to spend more time focusing on harvesting the fish and corals correctly and keeping them healthy while making more money. Although the harvesting of aquarium fish and their habitat is good for the ecosystem and the local economy, there should be more regulations because without them, ecosystems will be destroyed, and the local economy will suffer, leading to more devastating poverty.

Harvesting aquarium fish, corals, and live rock from reefs, if done sustainably and with regulations, is beneficial to the ecosystem of the reef. This is because people and fisheries who use the resources from the reef, do not want what they depend on destroyed. Pollution is one of the main causes of fish deaths, coral bleaching and coral death. It is shockingly widespread. Almost all reefs that have people near them are polluted.

There are many types of pollution, and one of the worst is sewage pollution. This is one of the biggest problems, considering 96% of reefs with people near them are polluted because of sewage (Hausheer, 2015, para. 3). Human sewage pollution is mainly found in developing or poor countries that do not have an adequately developed sewage management system in place. Some other causes of sewage pollution are coastal development which causes stormwater runoff, deforestation, oil and chemical spills, road construction, and agriculture (National, 2017, para. 1). Reefs are naturally one of the least nutrient dense regions of the ocean. This means when sewage pollution floods the system with extra nutrients, the corals can not cope with the extra nutrients, which harms them, and algae flourishes in the extra nutrients, overwhelming and killing even more corals. Toxins are also present, coming mainly from mining runoff, oil and chemical spills, and stormwater runoff.

Another type of pollution is ocean based pollution. This is caused by fishermen abandoning fishing gear, throwing plastics overboard, and ships that leak oil and discharge waste (Nature, 2017, para. 7). Oil leakage from ships can kill corals by changing the rate of calcification, expel their crucial zooxanthellae, and kill their larvae (Para. 6). Plastics and abandoned fishing gear drifts through the reef, catching a large variety of fish, mammals, and invertebrates before coming to rest on corals, where the corals are smothered and the animals die.

All this pollution can be stopped when harvesters realize that their livelihood is being destroyed. Pollution from ships can be stopped by developing a way to take care of ship generated waste at ports, improving the treatment of wastewater on ships, changing shipping lanes away from reefs, and disposing of ballast water on land (Nature, 2017, para. 10).

Regulations will also protect the reefs from tourism. Tourists are well meaning, but they often come from cities and don’t know what to do or how to protect sensitive reefs. Giving tourists an environmental briefing has been shown to reduce damage by 95%. Giving them simple guidelines to follow helps the countries protect their reefs. If local people step in, and protect what they work for, it will make a big difference.

Invasive species are a massive problem in most reefs. One of the major invasive species is the Lionfish. Most people have heard about it, but what they don’t know is it can eat up up to 79 percent of juvenile fish on a reef in one week (Constantine, 2015, para. 9) And there can be as many as 1000 lionfish per acre of reef. Plus, when they run out of food, they can live up to 12 weeks without food. The only thing that is stopping them from spreading further, is the fact that they can’t live in water colder than 50 degrees Fahrenheit (Constantine, para. 5) Lionfish are remarkably good to eat. So, if the harvesters and fisheries, when harvesting fish and corals, killed lionfish when they saw them, then they could sell it to local restaurants for extra money, while dramatically reducing the population. Simple regulations can help solve these, by giving fishing permits for lionfish for free, stopping ships from dumping ballast water (which sometimes carries invasive species), and encouraging the fishing of invasive species.

Without more regulations, the entire ecosystem will be destroyed, damaging the local economy, and also harming the global economy. There are three major causes of why unregulated fisheries and fishermen like Crisanto are killing the reefs. The first one is harmful fishing techniques. One of the worst, and the most inhumane ways to catch a fish is through cyanide poisoning. This is illegal in some countries, but enforcement is not strong enough. Cyanide is smuggled in through private planes and private contractors, then distributed to poor fishermen who do not know better. Cyanide stuns fish, making them easy to catch. It is crushed up, and dissolved in water, then put into small squirt bottles fishermen carry around. When they see a fish they want, it is usually hiding in the many nooks and crannies of the coral reef. So they squirt cyanide into the reef at it, causing the fish to float up where they can easily grab it. However, many other fish, invertebrates, or coral are affected. Fish that have been stunned by cyanide suffer “severe gasping, followed by loss of balance and a complete loss of all respiratory activity.” (Bale, 2016, para. 10). It works by depleting the cells in the fish of oxygen, causing them to suffocate (Pro, 2008, para. 2). Some fish are exposed to too much cyanide and die there in the water. They are left to rot and further pollute the reefs. Many more die in transit. Some may even stay alive until they are in someone’s tank, then die. Even though we do not know any of the long term effects as there have been very few long term studies done, we do know that cyanide not only kills many fish in the short term, but has a very definite effect on corals and invertebrates.

Each live fish caught with cyanide kills about one square meter of coral. Even lower doses of cyanide, even the cyanide that drifts away and disperses, can cause coral bleaching and even coral death. And once the coral is gone, the whole system collapses. Without coral, the fish, invertebrates, plants, and other animals no longer have food, shelter, or breeding grounds. But it doesn’t stop there. The effects keep going up the food chain (Bale, 2016, para. 12).

As much as 90% of the marine fish that enter the U.S. to be sold have been caught with cyanide (Bale, 2016, para. 4). The U.S. imports about 11 million marine fish of the 20 million sold globally. This is shocking, because it's estimated that as many as seventy to ninety percent of captured fish die before the even reach a tank. So most of those millions of fish don’t even make it into tanks, which means if we harvested sustainably and focused on keeping the fish alive and healthy, the aquarium trade could buy one-third of the fish it does now, but still have the same amount of fish alive. This means that there would be a higher demand for these fish, causing prices to go up, making it easier for fishermen and fisheries to not overharvest reefs and instead harvest sustainably.

Overfishing is extremely damaging to reefs. However, there are more ways to overfish then most people know. When most people hear overfishing they think of catching too many fish. But there are other aspects as well. Invertebrates, corals and live rock are all very important to reefs, but are overfished as well as fish. Live rock is formed when corals with a calcareous skeleton die, leaving the skeleton behind. In this way live rock is constantly being formed, so it should be harvested sustainably. Live rock can also be made with a man-made material called agrocrete, which is then put into the ocean near and around reefs to be seeded with the micro and macro animals which give it the name live rock. This unique rock plays an important role in a reef. First, it gives corals places to grow and spread, it also contains many forms of macro and microscopic marine life that live inside the rock. All these animals are part of a highly complex and very interconnected web that the whole reef is part of. When more live rock is removed then being created, not only does it reduce the amount of corals that can grow, and thus be harvested, but it also affects the whole reef when too many micro and macroscopic marine life are removed.

Invertebrates also play a very important role in the reef. One very important invertebrate is the sea urchin. This very unique animal is covered in spines, and eats lots and lots of algae. When this crucial species is removed, algae grows over corals, killing them. Other important invertebrates are hermit crabs, clams, tubeworms, and countless other invertebrates that eat algae, clean the water of excess food, eat food before it rots, and lots of other jobs. Overfishing fish also harms the reef very badly. In a study on the caribbean reefs it was found that overfishing of the two main algae grazers, the parrot fish and the sea urchin, was the main cause of coral decline (Scientific, 2014, para. 9). It doesn’t just affect corals though, when one vital species is overfished, in the impact stretches through the entire food chain, affecting numerous species, eventually coming back to humans. Fisheries overfishing is primarily the main cause of this.

Unregulated capture fisheries mainly affect fish, but the after effects also affect the whole reef. Since capture fisheries mainly target certain types of fish, (such as blue tangs and clown fish), important aspects of those fish are affected such as their sex ratio and their genetics makeup. Also, when the fish are overharvested, less fish grow to maturity, which reduces the amount of fish that would be able to be taken sustainably. Not only does it affect just the overharvested fish themselves, but it also affects all the fish and invertebrates that depend on them. This again ripples through the whole food chain. Even though overfishing is extremely damaging to the reef, the aquarium trade, done with regulations, is very good for the local economy.

The aquarium trade brings in lots of money for countries that are located near reefs. For instance, in at least 12 countries, the aquarium trade produces more than 15% of the GDP of those countries. That isn’t even including the massive amount of money that tourism of the reefs brings in. With regulations, the reefs are restored, and because of the restored reefs, tourism ramps back up, bringing the local economy even more income. Tourism is easy to manage, and it is easy to bring awareness to the reefs, which means the tourists don’t trash the reef. A possible side effect, that is happening right now, but that is very easy to prevent is tourists damaging the reef. This can happen when unknowing snorkeling tourists stand on corals to rest. This can break, or damage the coral, eventually killing it. Tourists can also generate lots of trash which instead of disposing of properly, they just throw it into the ocean. A study showed that a short paper showing tourists the impacts and how they can prevent and help the reefs reduces the impacts of tourists by as much as 90%.

The aquarium trade also produces lots and lots of jobs. Fisheries hire lots of people, and private fishermen sometimes hire a few people. Then when you think of all the people the fish have to go through, holding facilities, shipping facilities, airplanes, and multiple other handlers.

Fixing the aquarium trade will not only benefit the reef and its inhabitants, but it will also highly benefit the local economy and the people whose livelihood is based on the reef. Even simple regulations like minimum harvest size, enforcing a bag limit, and completely stopping harmful gathering techniques like cyanide and dynamite blasting would make a huge difference. A minimum harvest size would mean that no more young fish could be harvested, which would mean they would grow up and have babies before being captured, growing the population again. A bag limit would limit the amount of each type of fish, pounds of live rock, and types of corals and invertebrates each fisherman/fishery could harvest in a day. This, combined with a minimum harvest size, would grow the population, restoring endangered species like the BangaiI Cardinal, which has been dramatically over harvested. Clownfish and Blue Tangs would be restored to former numbers, meaning the bag limit could then be increased as the population grew. Enforcing a bag limit would limit the supply available to be sold, which would raise prices for each fish. Fishermen like Crisanto who before sold fish for pennies, would have the prices they could sell them for vastly raised. This, combined with an effort to show harvesters and fisheries the proper way to catch fish, would mean that fishermen like Crisanto could afford to catch fish in a far more humane way by using nets instead of cyanide of dynamite. The method that fish are caught has a massive impact on the exportation of them.

The United States of America imports millions of fish, but only around 10% of them actually make it into tanks, the rest die. This is because of harmful catching techniques like cyanide and dynamite. With proper catching techniques more fish will survive, which would mean that less fish have to be exported, reducing the amount of fish that need to be caught. Regulations enforcing cyanide and dynamite will also save the corals and invertebrates. Without lots of corals constantly being killed by cyanide and dynamite blasting, the corals will recover and propagate, creating more corals that can be harvested sustainably. Invertebrates like sea urchins, hermit crabs, and other crucial algae eaters will not be over harvested. As these recover, and the population begins to grow again, algae will be eaten, and the corals will once again be the main populators of the reef.

Protected area’s where no fishing or harvesting is allowed will let the local ecosystem to flourish, eventually overflowing from the protected area into the rest of the reefs, re-introducing protected and endangered species that will grow and reproduce until they are not endangered anymore. When the regulations are first installed, people like Crisanto may have a few days where he is making not very much money at all because of the bag limit. But when the fact that supply is decreased reaches the countries that buy the livestock, the retailer’s there will raise the prices for the fish because each person will get paid more along the line. So not only will people like Crisanto be paid a lot more for each fish, but also every single person the livestock passes through. The holding facilities, shipping facilities, retailers, and lots more. The whole economy would benefit, even the economy that the livestock is imported into. Crisanto will be able to buy better fishing equipment to catch fish more humanely, and won’t have to catch as many fish because the fish he does catch will sell for more. Overall, the reefs will be restored, the local and world economy will benefit, and Crisanto will not be struggling just to feed and clothe his family every day. Although the harvesting of aquarium fish and their habitat is good for the ecosystem and the local economy, there should be more regulations because without them, ecosystems will be destroyed, and the local economy will suffer, leading to more devastating poverty.

jamie carmichael

Wow! I'm really happy to see that you are promoting this hobby and standing up for reefs around the world. You make me proud to be part of this hobby. Hope you get top marks! Very informative and like that you have taken the whole economy into consideration!
  • Thread Starter


jamie carmichael said:
Wow! I'm really happy to see that you are promoting this hobby and standing up for reefs around the world. You make me proud to be part of this hobby. Hope you get top marks! Very informative and like that you have taken the whole economy into consideration!
Thank you!! It took a whole semester but I think it was worth it. For once I had fun writing since I cared and was interested in what I was writing about!

jamie carmichael

Yeah I know what you mean I did something similar last year as a project with a friend and in the end he ended up being as hooked to aquariums as me!

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