For many, aquariums act as the gateway into a world they never knew existed before, full of vibrant colors, stunning wildlife, and complexities beyond their imagination. To others, the ocean and its inhabitants have always been a natural part of life and maintaining or viewing an aquarium reminds them of why they fell in love with the marine world in the first place. Nearly everyone feels some kind of connection or excitement when gazing into the tank’s mini-ecosystem, but it holds a special meaning for those in the reef hobby because it represents the sum of their tireless work to perfect the tank. Regardless of what draws you to aquariums, as a passionate observer or aquarist, the scene behind the glass remains a sight that brings together all sorts of people in their mutual love for marine life. The beauty and intrigue of wild coral reefs has been brought to millions of homes, public aquariums, and even professional offices.

With such a large array of aquariums across the United States, let alone the globe, problems with supply and demand of reef fish, inverts, and corals are bound to arise.  Though the reef hobby and public aquariums have had to reconcile with bad press and accusations of unsustainable practices, it’s given rise to innovative solutions to bridge the gap. However, today the industry is still grappling with how to implement these solutions in an economical and effective way. Unawareness is a common cause of why some of these amazing supply side conservation techniques have not caught on yet. In light of this, a clear breakdown of what solutions are available, what needs to change, and how the individual can steer the reef hobby in the right direction will be outlined.


Supply Side Solutions:

An obvious (but not so ingenious) solution to creating a supply of wild marine fishes and corals for the aquarium trade is simply putting legal restrictions on the methods and quantities of wildlife that can be removed from the oceans.  A number of laws and actions have been taken by the U.S. government to protect coral reefs, though some say these actions are weak and ineffective at targeting the root causes of unsustainable fishing methods. The NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program is a very active group that spearheads national and international conferences regarding the health of coral reefs around the world. There is a whole slew of legislation surrounding coral reefs including: U.S. Coral Reef Task Force Coral Reef Action Strategy, Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000, just to name a couple.  Many experts agree that these policies provide an overarching platform to push reef conservation; however, the vast majority of the innovative and impactful change is coming from grassroots organizations determined to create a healthy future for corals.

A typical coral farm

Undoubtedly one of the most innovative and all around effective solution to overharvesting of corals from the wild, is coral farming! Coral farming combines techniques from aquaculture and traditional land farming to grow corals that can then be sold for aquarium use. What makes this entire system of coral farming possible is a coral’s biology.

A coral frag will naturally start asexually reproducing and grow into a larger coral. Though the art of coral farming is not yet perfected, it provides an amazing opportunity for coral restoration efforts to become a reality.  In fact, the coral policy in Indonesia requires that 10% of the coral they produce is transplanted back onto wild reefs while rest is sold as sustainably grown coral in the global market. This is the premier method of coral conservation, especially within the aquarium trade and could lead to 100% sustainability as far as coral trading goes.

A pair of Clownfish.

The perfect solution for the overharvesting of ornamental reef fish is still to be discovered; however, there are a variety of methods that are being tested and implemented to aid in the conservation of these beloved fish. So far, the most effective way to increase sustainability in regards to the trade of ornamental fish, is to breed them in captivity and then sell them to distributers and retailers. Often, captive bred fish are more commonly available to large aquarium institutions than private aquariums, but the number of tank bred species now available are dramatically growing.  Every year more and more species are being bred in academic institutions throughout the world and then being sold to distributors.  The process of breeding, raising, and selling fish in a human-controlled setting is called aquaculture.  Many academic research institutions, such as Roger Williams University, have robust programs set up to develop methods to breed ornamental fish and then sell them.  Common fish that are captive bred now are different species of clownfish, as this is one of the most popular home aquarium fish (thanks to Finding Nemo) this captive bred and raised fish are a sustainable alternative to wild caught clownfish. This is just one example of how aquaculture reduces stress on wild populations and provides a more direct relationship between the supplier and the fish’s final destination. This process eliminates any possibility of the fish or reefs being harmed by the illegal practice of cyanide poisoning, a technique where cyanide is used to stun reef fish but has deadly effects on the surrounding corals and the fish themselves. In addition, raising fish instead of capturing them provides a reliable and traceable chain of supply that further promotes sustainability and the conservation of wild fishes.

All of these innovative solutions to problems that have been a burden to the reef hobby and aquarium trade for years are great, but the last piece of the puzzle still needs to come into place – demand for these products.

How to Make Supply Meet Demand?

Consumers really do have the ultimate say in the fate of the oceans: will they fall victim to humanity’s destructive actions or will they rebound and prosper? With this in mind, choices about what corals, inverts, and fish are going to fill a tank can have a huge effect on the future of ornamental fish and coral. Though these singular decisions may seem like just a drop in the bucket, the combined efforts of the thousands of reef hobbyists throughout the U.S. alone can galvanize support for these sustainable options and push the industry in a progressive direction. Again, the ultimate question is how do we get there?  First, it is important to not put all the demand on only 15 or 20 fish species, because even with these new conservation measures the supply will not be able to sustainably keep up with the demand. Included in this category are yellow tang, clownfish, wrasses, and a host of other popular aquarium fish. Consumers should try to choose a variety of ornamental fish and not just from the top 20 most popular list so that those populations are not overly stressed.

Secondly, buyers need to know which fish are “good” meaning that they were harvested sustainably and by purchasing them the buyer is making an eco-friendly decision. In the food fish industry, the most effective way to create a pool of informed consumers was to create a guide for them to shop by, such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program. Recently, a similar program called Tank Watch has come out geared towards the reef hobbyist community. Tank Watch is an app (Apple iTunes store) that has a database of aquarium fish and notes if the fish is “good” or “bad” to buy based on information about geographic origin, its wild population, and the methods used to catch it. This app was designed for the environmentally conscious buyer and for those both new and old to the world of aquarium keeping. The app is super easy to use as fish can be looked up using common or scientific names or even through their unique color identification program. Each fish is labeled as good or bad, and has additional information about what level of aquarist it is best suited for. As the parameters regarding the sustainability of fish are constantly changing with new technology and policies, the app is kept up to date to ensure that the consumer is making the most informed decision. The use of this program could dramatically cut down on popular demand for unsustainable fishes and help wild populations recover.

The key towards pushing the market in a sustainable direction is shifting the demand for reef animals from the most popular to most sustainable. ReefNation recognizes that education is a crucial aspect of being able to make these informed decisions and maintaining a healthy aquarium and promote the use of such conservation techniques and sustainable practices.  As this transition to sustainability gains traction in the hobbyist world, it becomes economically viable for sellers to focus on those species that captive bred, farmed, or not in danger of being overfished. This will then reinforce the principle that wild fish, especially those that have already suffered population decline, should not be popularized to the point of population collapse. Simply being educated and aware of the path these fish and corals took to make it into your tank is a tremendous first step towards creating a sustainable aquarium trade and protecting wild coral reefs.