How Big is the Aquarium Fishery? – Another Look at the Data

Tuna Fishermen in Indonesia (C) Ret Talbot Photography

Tuna Fishermen in Indonesia (C) Ret Talbot Photography

On Thursday, I blogged about a LiveScience op-ed piece titled “Are Aquariums Ruining Coral Reef Biodiveristy?” In my blog entry, I explored, in part, the comparison the article’s author, Rod Fujita of the Environmental Defense Fund, made between seafood fisheries and aquarium fisheries, and, more specifically, the relative size of the aquarium fishery. I wrote:

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.

Respected author and aquarium trade consultant Svein A. Fosså responded to the same issues in Fujita’s piece, but he took it a step further and presented the actual data for the point of comparison. Here is what he wrote:

The author claims that somewhere between 20-24 million fishes are harvested every year. Sounds awful doesn’t it?

The majority of these fishes weigh less than 3 grams, very few more than 10 grams. Assuming an average weight of 5 grams per fish, 24 million fish will amount to a total weight of no less than 120 metric tons (that’s one hundred and twenty thousand kilograms).

Yes, it sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?

Since the author compares with the seafood harvest, please let me do the same. According to FAO fishery statistics (, the total global harvest of marine fishes for food fisheries was 68,316,234 metric tons (that’s sixty eight million, three hundred and sixteen thousand, two hundred and thirty four …thousand kilograms).

Does the (somewhat exaggerated) 120 metric tons of fish destined for aquaria still sound like an awful lot? Maybe, you’ll say it does, since the author (correctly) states that a very large part of these fishes come from two countries only; the Philippines and Indonesia.

Let me then take the liberty to point out, again according to FAO statistics ( that the total fisheries catch in Indonesia in 2011 amounted to 5,707,684 metric tons. Even if every single fish destined for the aquarium trade should have been caught in Indonesia alone, the ornamental fisheries would have amounted to 0.002 % of the food fisheries.

Fosså is quick to point out (as I did in my blog entry) that ornamental fisheries need better monitoring and control, but he does objective (as do I) to the sort of overstatement and grandstanding with cherry-picked data that is common amongst anti-aquarium fishery advocates.

Unfortunately, I’m afraid, much of the value at the heart of Fujita’s current work, a paper in the journal Fish and Fisheries titled “Assessing and managing data-limited ornamental fisheries in coral reefs,” is summarily dismissed by some of those who need to hear it most because of the rhetoric. It seems we should all dial the rhetoric down a notch and get back to the data and a data-driven multi-stakeholder approach to improving the fishery insofar as sustainability is concerned.

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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