My latest article, co-authored with friend and colleague biologist Richard Ross of the Steinhart Aquarium, published yesterday in Reef Hobbyist Magazine. In some ways, it represents a departure from my regular beat, and I thank editor Jim Adelberg for the concept and invitation to write the piece. Below is an excerpt from the beginning of the article with a link at the end to the article in its entirety (you’ll want to click on it to see Ross’ stunning photography!).
The oceans are Earth’s final frontier.
Much like our relationships with other frontiers evolved as wildernesses beyond known borders were explored, our relationship with the sea is necessarily changing as its deepest bathometric details are mapped. This change, while certainly about the physical—removing blank spots from the map—is also very much about the psychological. As the “wildness” is diminished, our association with “wild things” often turns from one of fear and awe to a desire to conserve and appreciate.
When Roman explorers returned to Rome with wild animals from far-flung corners of the newly “found” world, those animals represented the general population’s relationship to wildness. While some of those animals were eventually domesticated or became exotic pets and ornamental accoutrements to the lives of the privileged, most were resigned to shortened lives as chained curiosities or participants of damnatio ad bestias—staged hunts held before massive crowds at the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum.
Throughout ancient history, people condemned to death were “thrown to the wolves” or lowered “into the lion’s den.” Pitting animal against animal or animal against man remains a source of entertainment and even income in many parts of the world. For much of modern history, animals have been commonly captured from the wild for display in zoos and public aquariums. Most recently, and not without controversy, the documentary Blackfish once again challenged society’s perception of our relationship with captive animals.
Many marine aquarists are quick to support a film like Blackfish or the efforts of the Sea Shepherd Society because of their love of marine life but without fully connecting the dots to their own passion for keeping in aquaria fishes that once swam free on wild reefs. Discussing the ethics of keeping marine aquarium fishes and other animals is a dialog that has been slow to gain traction amongst aquarists, but having that discussion may be an essential part of both the hobby and trade’s future.
The Seafood Analog
The marine aquarium fish trade is one of the last segments of the pet trade to rely almost entirely on wild animals. In some important ways, especially insofar as wildness is concerned, the marine fish trade and the seafood trade share some striking similarities. First and foremost, once a fish is removed from an ecosystem for either an aquarium or for a plate, it is gone from the wild forever. Like the seafood industry, the marine aquarium fish trade is largely an extractive industry relying on harvesting a natural resource. While generally considered renewable, both food and aquarium fisheries can be overfished to the point of both species and system collapse, although the… [ Read More ]