A LiveScience op-ed yesterday asked the question “Are Aquariums Ruining Coral Reef Biodiveristy?” As someone who has covered aquarium fishery issues for a number of years, this is a question I have wanted to answer on numerous occasions. More often than not, however, I find my research leads me to some pretty serious grey areas. One of the reasons an answer to the question has remained so elusive is the conspicuous lack of data either confirming or denying sustainability.
A Large Unmonitored Fishery?
The LiveScience piece, which was penned by Rod Fujita, oceans director of research and development for the Environmental Defense Fund, references a paper in the journal Fish and Fisheries published online in April of this year. Fujita, who was also the lead author on the paper, conjectures in the LiveScience article that:
Millions of people benefit from [the marine ornamental fishery], both financially and aesthetically, yet no international agencies are monitoring it — even though it may strongly impact coral reefs, the centers of ocean biodiversity.
Getting any sort of reliable data on marine aquarium fisheries is an incredibly difficult task. While we now have access to fairly reliable import data for animals brought into the United States for the marine aquarium trade from 2005 onward, this data set does not include the totality of animals harvested in aquarium fisheries around the world. Bycatch, supply chain mortality and illegal activity all conspire against the type of transparency required to give a definitive answer of “no” to Fujita’s central question.
While we have lots of anecdote and impassioned beliefs on both sides of a debate regarding the aquarium trade, we simply don’t have the data.
Where’s the Data?
I remember the first time I covered Hawaii’s relatively small marine aquarium fishery in 2010. Having previously reported on numerous aquarium fisheries in places like Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji, and other developing island nations in the Pacific, I expected Hawaii’s fishery would, in stark contrast, be highly regulated. It was not. While I did find an aquarium fishery with an abundance of data, I also met fisheries managers who were frustrated by having little power to use that data to manage the fishery in real time.
…and that was in the United States, where we generally try to pat ourselves on the back when it comes to natural resource management.
While I was surprised to learn that, despite the preponderance of data, Hawaii’s aquarium fishery was not better managed back in 2010, I was not terribly surprised to be confronted with a dearth of data upon arriving in Indonesia for a story last June. In my experience, lack of data and lack of effective fisheries management in developing island nations is, unfortunately, the norm rather than the exception.
When stepping outside the boundaries of a developed nation like the United States or Australia, one frequently finds governments that have (sorry for the pun) larger fishes to fry.
Consider global tuna fisheries and the sort of coordinated international effort managing such a fishery requires. Then look at the resources available (not to mention the political stability or lack thereof) in developing island nations where much of the fishery is centered. When political stability and basic public services are lacking, using valuable resources to effectively manage a fishery becomes a luxury often relegated to the back burner. Hence, for these and other reasons, for a number of years the tuna fishery in the Indo-Pacific had a wild west mentality.
Luckily, there has been a lot of positive progress insofar as the tuna fishery is concerned, but that is largely because of the size and value of the fishery and the attendant engagement of those in the developed world who have put pressure on all nations to engage.
Tuna is big business, and many more people consume tuna than have an aquarium.
A Large Enough Fishery?
In the LiveScience article, Fujita cites some numbers that make the aquarium fishery look big. “Every year,” he writes, “this fishery removes an estimated 20 million to 24 million fish, many millions of corals and shells, and 9 million to 10 million additional invertebrates.” While these are big numbers, they pale in comparison to the sort of biomass in which food fisheries deal–even if one only was to look at seafood bycatch. This is an important point to make, but for too long it has been the end of the discussion for many aquarium fishery advocates rather than the beginning.
Yes, aquarium fisheries are small when compared with food fisheries, and the negative impacts of aquarium fisheries on reef ecosystems are dwarfed by other anthropogenic stressors like terrestrial run-off and ocean acidification, but should this relative “smallness” give aquarium fisheries a pass when it comes to applying the very difficult lessons we have learned about the importance of managing fisheries based on data and accurate baselines?
I, for one, do not think it does, and neither does Fujita.
Aquarium fisheries in developing island nations are frequently unmanaged or managed in a fashion that is, at best, laissez-faire and devoid of data. It is frequently advocated by those who operate for profit in those countries that the scale of harvest is so small–especially when compared to other fisheries–that formal, government-mandated management and data collection is unjustified. As more than one owner-operator of a marine aquarium trade export company in a developing island nation has told me, “We’ve been fishing this way for twenty years, and the reefs look as good today as they did when we started.”
Since my first trip to Hawaii more than three years ago to cover that State’s aquarium fishery, additional fishery management has been put in place that will, according to fisheries managers, help insure sustainability. While the management of the Hawaii marine aquarium fishery remains contentious, at least there is data to help ground the discussion, and assertions of a more sustainable fishery can be assessed based on data, not anecdote.
Unfortunately, insofar as marine aquarium fisheries are concerned, Hawaii is an unusual situation. When it comes to the rest of the Pacific, especially countries like Indonesia and the Philippines where a majority of marine aquarium animals originate, there is precious little data. While an entirely community-based small scale fishery in a small remote developing island nation where traditional resource ownership rights prevail may be able to operate sustainably even in the absence of data, the same can not be said about the major export countries. It is in these countries that we absolutely need mechanisms in place to increase the sustainability of the fishery through management and assessment. As Fujita writes,
Researchers know that the fisheries that decline and collapse tend to be those that are not managed or assessed. Therefore, the first step toward a solution is to assess the status of ornamental stocks and the coral reefs that support them.
No Valid Excuses
This is why aquarists should embrace Fujita’s work, rather than immediately dismissing it because of the provocative question it asks. In the paper, Fujita and his colleagues put forth a framework that integrates several data-poor assessment and management methods that can provide fisheries managers in developing island nations with guidance even when the data may be lacking and the resources may be scarce. While effectively managing marine aquarium fisheries will still require resources and political will, the costs associated with data collection and developed world fisheries management protocols are far less daunting. Claiming the aquarium fishery is too small to be assessed and managed is no longer a justification for maintaining the status quo.
As Fujita told me today, “With very low cost data poor assessment and management methods that have been developed, there really is no valid excuse for the lack of assessment and management. That is really the main point of our paper. Also, it’s not as though failing to assess and manage is risk-free; there is now good empirical evidence that unassessed and unmanaged fisheries are doing significantly worse in terms of conservation and also in terms of jobs and profits than fisheries that are assessed and managed.”