Impact of the Aquarium trade on Coral Reefs

Aquarium trade entails the harvesting of live fish, corals and other marine species for ornamental and curio trades. According to a 2003 UN study, the aquarium industry stood at a worldwide valuation of about $200 to $300 million.

Today, 33 percent of corals face extinction, and there has been an 80 percent decline of some types of corals as compared to a decade ago. While this may be due to other reasons like global warming, pollution, and overfishing, aquarium trade only aggravates the situation.

Coral reefs support a huge number of marine species by providing food and shelter, assisting in carbon and nitrogen fixation processes, protecting marine life from harsh tropical storms, and so much more.

The Coral Triangle, which is a huge area encompassing the tropical marine waters of Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Solomon Islands, Timor-Leste and Papua New is especially a productive hub for the aquarium trade as it is home to over 500 species (76% of all known species worldwide) of reef-building corals.

Data analysts recorded that over 2250 species of marine fish and 725 invertebrate were imported into the US between 2000 and 2011. While the trade may be a source of income and employment for many, conservationists warn that the harmful ways collection will lead to the extinction of most coral reefs.

One popular method is the use of sodium cyanide (NACN), which an inexpensive poison that causes a startling effect on fish making them easy to catch.

Cyanide fishing results to about 70-90% of fish deaths after capture as well as instant deaths or damage to coral reefs. The reefs may further suffer from physical damage due to either blast/dynamite fishing, reckless breakages by divers or by the careless dropping of anchors/lines from fishing boats.

According to some biologists, each live fish that is caught using cyanide destroys approximately a square yard of coral and even in low doses, the cyanide can cause coral bleaching. The death of a coral will result in a collapse of the entire ecosystem and eventual death of surrounding marine life.

This will also affect coastal communities who rely on resource extraction from the coral reef ecosystems. Laws have been set in a couple of nations to outlaw the use of cyanide in fishing, for instance, the US Fish and Wildlife Service implements the Lacey Act to carry out crackdowns, tests, and certifications of all imported tropical fish. However, the conservation of corals will undoubtedly have to be a collective effort both from the public and the stakeholders for maximum effectiveness.

Environment conservation organizations like the WWF’s Coral Triangle Program, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Humane Society, For the Fishes and the Center for Biological Diversity among others are at the forefront in trying to salvage the situation.

There has also been an increase in regulation of reef fisheries through tools such as marine protected areas (MPAs). Other initiatives taken to relieve the pressure of off coral reef ecosystems include promotion of net fishing in place of cyanide fishing, continued investments in aquaculture, cyanide detection kits and offering of cyanide-free certification to compliant wholesalers.

Aquarium hobbyists and traders alike are encouraged to only deal with fish bred in captivity in a bid to conserve our coral reef ecosystems. Mobile applications like “Tank Watch”, from the Hawaiian based For the Fishes organization, are available for free to help people identify captive-bred fish.

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