Today, the word sustainability gets thrown around by companies and consumers alike as they try to pose as eco-friendly forward thinkers. This is not to say that these initiatives haven’t been a pivotal win for the environment, but instead it begs the question what exactly is sustainability? An even better question might be how is sustainability defined in regards to the aquarium trade? The answer is not as straightforward as you might think, instead it is shrouded in controversy and questions that baffle scientists and economists alike.

Though modern day consumers could ramble off a list of eco-labels and sustainably grown or harvested products, could they give the same detailed answers when facing the question: How is the marine aquarium trade sustainable? I don’t think so. The likely reasons for this is that they don’t have a sold grasp of the aquarium trade itself, and secondly that an industry wide movement towards sustainability has not yet emerged.  As many aquarists know, the aquarium trade encompasses the collection, shipping, and distribution of fishes, corals, and inverts to public and private aquariums of varying sizes in addition to various retail shops. This creates a lot of gray area and hoops to jump through in order to garner support for a clear industry wide sustainability initiative.

In comparison to the seafood fisheries, the aquarium industry is much smaller in scale and environmental impact yet, at times, it faces almost equal scrutiny. This could be attributed to bad press and the common perception that aquariums are considered a luxury hobby, not a necessity as seafood is. In this article, we will largely focus on sustainability of the aquarium trade as it relates to the harvesting, processing, and distribution of marine organisms that originate in the wild.  That means we’re talking about those fish and corals which decorate your well cared for home aquarium that were not raised in a lab or through aquaculture. The general focus is here because that’s where the public concern lies within the umbrella of the aquarium trade industry. Through developing a deeper and broader understanding of what sustainability could look like for the aquarium industry, it will give both producers, consumers, and aquarists an opportunity to be on the right side of history.



Views of Sustainability

The term sustainability has been overused and worn out in the last decade to the point where it has become commonplace and at the same time generally misunderstood. A very basic definition of sustainability is the ability to be sustained, supported, upheld, or confirmed. This dictionary definition is the foundation of how sustainability is defined today, but fails to include the environmental, social, and economic implications that the term now holds. The leading definition of sustainability is defined as, “when resource extraction meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations”. This specific definition was developed by the Brundtland Commission otherwise known as the UN World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. By solely using this definition to classify the aquarium industry, it would qualify as sustainable since the approximate biomass removed is naturally replenished each year. The UN definition captures the spirit of the sustainability that exists today, but also forgets how multifaceted the term has become.  I believe that a more inclusive and true definition would be, when resource extraction meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations while maintaining ethical economic, social, and environmental implications of industry and development.

Although the controversy over the definition is an ongoing conversation, an even more pressing conversation is that of how to approach the idea of sustainability as an industry.  Many claim triumph over producing sustainable products, in our case, sustainable marine ornamental fish or corals. Even if the process of collecting this fish is sustainable and therefore the final product is deemed successful, should the conversation of sustainability stop there? Instead of viewing sustainability as an end goal or a final destination it should be viewed as an evolving idea that lies on a continuum. What is sustainable one year could become unsustainable the next as populations and markets change. Therefore, the industry should strive toward increasing sustainability and evaluating the scope and standards they measure this in. By approaching sustainability in this way, it allows the industry to be more progressive and conducive to positive change.

Why is a Sustainability Focus Needed in Aquarium Trade Industry?

Current estimates say that the aquarium trade is a $200 billion industry, with the majority of that money coming from the selling organisms that were harvested from wild reefs. There are a number of key issues within the aquarium trade that has given it a poor reputation in the eyes of some and limits the productivity of the industry.  Currently, there is limited information on the exact number and species of imported and exported marine organisms, specifically ornamental fish, in connection with the aquarium trade. However, the current belief is that 1,800 marine ornamental fish species are imported into the U.S. each year, totaling to 195 million individual fish imported yearly.

With increased demand for aquarium fish, pressure has been put on wild populations as a result of increased harvest and lingering use of illegal catch tactics. Cyanide fishing, where fish are stunned with cyanide poisoning, which then kills coral in the surrounding area as well, is a deadly practice that has garnered severe criticism from the international community. In comparison, the coral trade is doing well and serves as a template for sustainability in the aquarium trade, though it only encompasses 1/20th of the industry. By extracting small fragments from reefs and then growing them on farms, in labs, or in home aquariums it creates a sustainable process that conserves the wild coral will still providing coral for the growing reef hobbyist community.

Another area where sustainability initiatives would make a large impact on the livelihood of the trade and the organisms themselves is the shipping and distribution process. Though there is little conclusive hard data on the mortality rates of fish after capture, what is known seems to indicate that too many fish perish during the time period between being caught and arriving at their final destination. Technological fixes could be the solution to change these destructive fishing methods and create procedures to reduce mortality rates. Recently, scientists have questioned the role of invasive species in the aquarium trade and the industry’s responsibility to control and combat this issue. This was just a brief overview of the issues within the aquarium industry which contribute to the public’s perception of it being increasingly unsustainable.

The Long Run

A Coral Reef in the Philippines

Continuously pursuing sustainability as an evolving idea requires constant evaluation and changes to industry-wide procedures to best conserve natural resources and sustain livelihoods that operate within the larger picture.  By simply addressing some of these pressing issues, the industry could garner public support and highlight how it puts minimal stress on the environment and is actually worthy of praise.  The focus can then be drawn to the educational and conservation benefits that arise from public and private aquariums, as well as the joy aquarium keeping and viewing gives to individuals. In conclusion, it is important to note that currently the aquarium is much, much more sustainable than seafood fisheries but with this in mind we must not look at this as a one-off accomplishment but use it as a base to grow towards greater sustainability in the industry.


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