Today is “World Wildlife Day.”
Many of the people I have come to know through my involvement with the marine aquarium trade have enthusiastically shared this fact through social media throughout the day. They have “liked” and shared images and quotations that are easy to “like” and “share.” We all, after all, want to end illegal wildlife trafficking. We all want to agree that, when it comes to trading and using wild plants and animals, we should only do so sustainably and ethically.
It’s a no-brainer, right?
Frequently I have the opportunity to speak with marine aquarists at aquarium conferences, society meetings and local club events. I’m often invited to speak on aquarium fisheries and the intersection of science and sustainability. This topic is very much in my wheelhouse, not just for aquarium fisheries, but for all fisheries, and as I frequently share with audiences that, from a sustainability standpoint, it doesn’t matter why you remove a fish from the resource. Whether that fish ends up in an aquarium or on a plate, once it’s gone from the ecosystem, it’s gone.
A fishery is a fishery is a fishery, and fisheries can be fished sustainably or unsustainably.
The marine aquarium trade depends primarily on wild aquarium fisheries, which means that most of the fishes in saltwater aquaria across North America originate in the wild. They are wildlife. What some people have known for a long time–and what many are just coming to appreciate–is that many of those fishes are harvested unsustainably. Many reach the North American aquarium trade illegally. Any fish collected illegally in its source country is a Lacey Act violation here in the United States. Any fish passed through a murky supply chain where the proper paperwork was not filed, the proper authorities not involved, and the proper procedures ignored is likely nothing short of wildlife illegally trafficked and traded. Don’t believe it? Check in with Gibson or Lumber Liquidators.
There is no question that the marine aquarium trade has the potential to do much good–good far disproportionate to its potential for negative impacts. And yet the trade continues to rely on the source countries about which there are the most concerns. The trade continues to rely on illegal wildlife trafficking.
But how can this be so when so many aquarists I know support an initiative like World Wildlife Day–a day intended to remind us of the urgent need to step up the fight against wildlife crime with its wide-ranging economic, environmental and social impacts?
The easy answer is because those source countries provide the greatest number and diversity of cheap animals, and it’s too hard to know an animal’s actual provenance once it has made its way through the supply chain. But today–on World Wildlife Day–I challenge aquarists to consider the other part of the answer to why the North American marine aquarium trade relies heavily on countries where we know unethical, illegal and inequitable activity is rampant. Isn’t it, at least in part, because aquarists too readily pass the buck–say they didn’t know or that they can’t know or that it’s not their fault?
It’s time for marine aquarists to get on the right side of history and take ownership for their actions–for the trade they support. When an aquarist knows the trade they support with every dollar spent is dependent upon a system that is so broken, some would say they have an obligation to act. While it’s a lot easier to be an ignorant consumer at either the seafood counter or the aquarium store, don’t we owe it to the sheer brilliance of biodiversity and splendor of wildlife we so love to go out of our way to do the right thing?
While it’s easy to “like” a picture of an endangered elephant or share a photo of a ridiculously cute cub, kit or chick emblazoned with the words “Happy World Wildlife Day,” it’s quite another thing to take the core message of World Wildlife Day to heart.
Let’s celebrate with our actions.