For over a century fisherman and scientists have struggled to answer the time old question: how many fish can humans take out of the ocean and still maintain a healthy ecosystem? Most often this question is asked in regards to the food fish industry as overfishing is becoming more and more of a problem; however, with the booming growth of the aquarium trade in the past 50 years people are beginning to question what the limitations of wild reef fish and coral collection are.  The food fish and aquarium fish collection industry share the common trait of collecting wild fish for human use; however, the dynamics within these industries are dramatically different.  For instance, in food fisheries large trawlers, gill nets, and sophisticated technology dominate the playing field, all with the purpose of catching the most fish with the least effort.  Conversely reef fish are collected by individuals using hand nets, though an increase in the use of destructive fishing methods such as cyanide poisoning raises concerns.  Another distinct difference between the two industries is the per fish price difference.  While the average food fish is sold for $1 (or less)/kilogram, the average aquarium fish is sold for $500/kilogram, meaning that the aquarium trade is extremely profitable and this profitability creates problems unique to this industry. An unsustainable aquarium trade, like a food fishery, can lead to economic and ecological collapse. On the other hand, a sustainable aquarium trade can lead to socioeconomic and environmental progress for the small villages and coastal communities in the Indo-Pacific who provide the majority of the wild fish and corals for the aquarium trade. When the aquarium trade and collection of reef fish first started it was very sustainable, but as fishing practices change and demand for aquarium fish increases, threats to reef ecosystems as well as the livelihoods of fisherman are mounting. As a relatively new industry, in the grand scheme of things, the aquarium trade is teeming with untapped potential to lead the world in large scale sustainability practices, and the time is now for importing and exporting countries to make that monumental commitment.

Where do Most Aquarium Fish Come From?

A major factor to consider when answering the question of how many fish are too many, is where those fish come from.  The vast majority of aquarium fish are exported from Indonesia and the Philippines to the United States, coincidentally the two exporting countries with the worst reputations for breaking laws put in place to maintain healthy marine fish populations.  The Pacific Ocean surrounding the small island nations, gives way to unique reeindo pacific mapf ecosystems and biodiversity that flourishes in this pristine environment. Not surprisingly, the reefs are home to a wide variety of reef fish and corals that are extremely popular for use in home or large scale aquarium tanks.  Many of these reefs have avoided devastation by the recent coral bleaching events, but in order to continue to preserve these reefs sustainable fish collection practices need to be employed.  Destructive fishing methods and mislabelling of fish are the two major concerns with the aquarium trade and exportation of reef fish from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Reasons to Worry:

As traditional fishing methods evolved, cyanide poisoning slowly began to replace hand net fishing methods most acutely in the Philippines and Indonesia.  Fisherman will dive in the reefs, cyanide poisoning in hand, and spray sections of the reef that have valuable fish. The fish are then temporarily shocked and paralyzed so that they are easier to scoop up into nets, while the coral in that area usually suffer a worse fate – death. The cyanide is a harmful poison that kills the corals on contact.  Not only does this fishicyanid poisoning fishingng method effectively destroy the coral reefs that draw fish to the area, but it increases the number of fish caught putting the population at a heightened risk.  In short, cyanide poisoning is harmful to the environment and is simply not needed to catch fish.  Ret Talbot, a freelance journalist who reports on fishery and aquarium trade news, comments that, “by nature the aquarium trade leans toward sustainability because there are no huge trawlers, instead there are individual hand nets”.  Honest fisherman with hand nets, capturing fish one by one not only keeps with tradition but is the only way to sustainably collect fish for the aquarium trade without compromising the ecosystem.

Due to a lack of resources and funding, scientists have difficulty obtaining a concrete estimate of many fish populations as surveying only takes place twice a year.  This makes it nearly impossible for scientists to accurately inform policies to keep reefs healthy. The second concern with aquarium trade in this region is the prevalent mislabeling of fish. Similar to the problems associated with counting fish, the data on what fish are exported from countries is just as muddled. Researchers from the New England Aquarium and Roger Williams University have set out to solve this mystery and determine how many fish are exported or imported from a certain country and what species of fish or invertebrates they are.  It’s a daunting challenge, but through years of hard work untangling the mess of data from around the world, the researchers successfully created a real-time data base that shows exactly how many marine animals are exported and imported in the global aquarium trade. The main problem researchers encountered when analyzing the various records and data from around the world, was the mislabelling of fish.  This mislabelling made Nemo, or A. Percula, seem incredibly overfished when in fact many other species of clownfish were being labelled as A. Percula in order to fetch a higher market price. A prime reason for the mislabelling is that if a fish or invertebrate is perceived to be rare it goes for a much higher price, not just a few hundred dollars more but thousands. So by making something appear rare, it is much more profitable for the seller.  Through a series of complicated amylases and computer algorithms researchers were finally able to teasclown fishe out the accurate numbers in regards to the number of fish and invertebrate species that were taken from the wild.  As it turns out, Nemo isn’t in danger at all!  Certain species of clownfish may be overfished, but A. Percula the clownfish endemic to the Great Barrier Reef is getting along just swimmingly.  This online database of all the exporting and importing data gathered by the researchers is now available to the public through: This tremendous insight into the aquarium trade that this expansive database provides will help to ensure the sustainability of the industry.

Sustainable Aquarium Trade for the Future

Most people in the United Staes who purchase fish in a pet store, never take a moment to pause and think about where their new fish came from, let alone what kind of fishing methods were used to catch them.  Likewise, fisherman never know where their hand selected fish end up after they sell them to a local market.  In fact, more times than not, they don’t even know what country their marine fish will end up in.  This disconnect in the supply chain, coupled with rampant mislabelling, leads to ineffective regulation and misrepresentation of marine population data.  As the aquarium trade has grown, the number of fisherman collecting wild reef fish and corals has also grown in response to greater demand for aquarium fish and corals. Fisherman are a small but extremely important link in the chain that is the aquarium trade, and for many, selling marine fish to exporters is their fist experience interacting with a globalized world.  Many marine fish that are exported to the U.S. come from small village communities throughout the Indo-Pacific region that had little outside contact before engaging in the aquarium trade.  Unfortunately, this is also the first time that these communities are seeing the impact humans can have on the environment, as overfishing and demand for local resources begin to damage biodiverse rainforests and reef ecosystems. Even given all the negatives associated with the aquarium trade, there is no better pathway to propel these coastal communities into a globalized world and gain socio-economic progress than the collecting and selling reef flora and fauna.  Additionally, the traditional fishing practice of collecting fish with hand nets is very sustainable as the technology limits human impact on the reef.traditional fisherman in indo pacific

Looking towards the future, educating these productive coastal villages who make their livelihoods through collecting fish on human impact on the environment and how to sustainably fish and operate will lead to better management of local resources. There should be stricter and more regulated procedures for tracking the import and export of marine aquarium fish within the U.S., so that population misrepresentation is minimized and proper labeling of fish and invertebrates is enforced.  The dynamics of the aquarium trade lends itself to sustainability with the added benefits of social progress for fisherman, and with a little effort from legislative bodies we can ensure a future for fish, fisherman, and fellow aquarium lovers.


Pictures (top to bottom):, James Corvine, Gerald Nowak, Ret Talbot

Fisheries and Aquaculture Solutions