The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently announced they listed 20 species of coral as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and are now moving forward with a status review of the orange clownfish (Amphiprion percula). In addition, another one of the most popular aquarium fishes, the Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni), is also being reviewed by NMFS for ESA listing. While this type of news is often well received by the general public, for some the announcement has proven a distractingly polarizing event pitting an increasingly embattled pet industry against the federal government.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course—this, in and of itself, is no David and Goliath showdown…or at least it wasn’t before the media and the fear-mongers got involved. With oversimplified sound-bytes, attention grabbing headlines and incendiary social media blitzes, what could have been a constructive dialog (even a collaboration) toward conserving embattled coral reefs has become a widening schism that largely ignores the data.
A Good Sound-Byte Unsupported by the Data
Several mainstream media outlets covering the announcement that NMFS is embarking on a status review of A. percula (aka Nemo, for many) took the easy route and published misinformation appealing to pre-conceived notions but unsupported by readily available data. For example, ignoring the subtleties of NMFS’s thoughtful and comprehensive review of the A. percula data contained in the petition to list the species, Nick Visser reports in the Huffington Post that:
“Threats including ocean acidification and warming temperatures, as well as overfishing by the aquarium trade, have ravaged populations of Pixar’s favorite orange fish.”
What NMFS actually said in their 90-day finding was that “A. percula may be warranted for listing due to species specific threats identified under listing Factor A” and identified in the document as “Present or Threatened Destruction, Modification, or Curtailment of Habitat or Range.” In short, NMFS’s primary concern is “bleaching and subsequent loss of anemone habitat resulting from ocean warming.” On the allegation of A. percula being “ravaged” by overfishing from the aquarium trade, NMFS explicitly says they simply don’t have the data to assess that claim. “In the absence of information on abundance,” NMFS says, “we are unable to determine how the harvest of up to 200,000 individuals annually may impact the status of A. percula.”
Visser, completely misreading the data, reports in his piece that the U.S. marine aquarium trade “imported around 200,000” orange clownfish in 2005. While that may make a nice sound-byte, the reality is far different. The 200,000 statistic does appear in the NMFS 90-day finding document, but it’s clearly not intended as the actual imports of the species in question. What NMFS says is that they “can only infer that total A. percula imports to the U.S. were less than 200,000 individuals.”
As NMFS states earlier in the same document, “within the range of A. percula, at least 255 different species of reef fish, totaling just over 200,000 individuals, were exported to the U.S in 2005.” NMFS is, in essence, saying: “We don’t have a lot of data here, but based on the data we do have, there is absolutely no way the marine aquarium trade imported more than 200,000 A. percula in 2005 because that number represents the total number of fishes imported from countries where A. percula exists in the wild.”*
The data cited above are based on a 2012 scientific paper titled “Revealing the Appetite of the Marine Aquarium Fish Trade: The Volume and Biodiversity of Fish Imported into the United States” (Rhyne et al). The freely available data unmistakably reveal to anyone taking a data-centered approach that the number of A. percula harvested in the wild in 2005 was well below 200,000, yet the number stands in the Huffington Post and will now likely become part of the narrative of anti-trade advocates.
Firing Back with Polarizing Rhetoric Instead of Data
Visser isn’t the only one playing loose with the facts and the data. His implication that the aquarium trade is playing a major role in “ravaging” wild populations of A. percula—something NMFS did not itself conclude in its 90-day finding—immediately put aquarists on the defensive. Aquarists, after all, have a lot to lose if A. percula is listed as “Endangered,” and they were already in circle-the-wagons mode after the recent listing of several popular aquarium corals as “Threatened.”**
Visser’s and other mainstream media’s allegations against the trade, like a match to the tinderbox, set off a fusillade from aquarists and pet industry advocates of even more hyperbolic rhetoric largely ignorant of the data. Aquarists knew—just absolutely knew—that there was no way the aquarium trade was having the kind of negative effect Visser and others were alleging. In response to Visser, they said things like:
“To say that the aquarium trade has contributed to the decline in wild clownfish is completely false. All clownfish and many more marine fish such as dotty backs and many Angel fish (and others) are bred in tanks and not taken from the ocean.”
While Visser’s use of the 200,000 statistic at least has part of a foot in the data (even if only a little toe), the claim that the aquarium trade is no longer harvesting any clownfishes from the wild is unsupported by any reading of the data. Unfortunately, it’s a fallacy too often perpetuated by frequent anecdote within hobby circles, as well as dogmatic defensive rhetoric repeated in trade publications and during industry events like last month’s Marine Aquarium Conference of North America (MACNA). Following that event, average aquarists appeared more convinced than ever that the marine aquarium hobby relies primarily on captive bred animals and the trade’s effect on wild reefs is “negligible.”
“Last weekend I saw well over 1000 of these clownfish in captivity from various retailers and not one was wild,” said one conference attendee. An aquarium media outlet states, “If there was any undertone to this year’s MACNA, it would have to be the abundance of captive bred fish in the aquarium hobby.”
The data clearly expose these claims as fallacies. The data show the marine aquarium trade is a trade based almost entirely on fishes harvested from the wild. While many advances have been made in aquaculture over the past several years—and most clownfishes are indeed now captive bred—best estimates suggest that upwards of 90% of the animals found entering the U.S. aquarium trade today originate in the wild. That’s a problem when, as NMFS pointed out in their final rule document for listing the 20 coral species late last month, “the amount of unreported, illegal, and unregulated collection, combined with the large amount of biomass loss along the supply chain, raises serious questions as to the sustainability of the ornamental trade.” Make no doubt, a sustainable aquarium trade, like a sustainable seafood trade, can provide economic incentive to conserve and fish sustainably, but there is far too little transparency and traceability in the marine aquarium trade to prove this is the case for the majority of wild aquarium fisheries.
While clownfishes represent the best example of aquaculture mitigating wild-harvest, it’s as important for aquarists not to resort to hyperbole as it is for Visser, anti-trade activists and media outlets pointing the finger at the aquarium trade. The data show that, in 2005, somewhere around half-a-million clownfishes (all species) were imported to the U.S. Of this 500,000, sources familiar with the data say, somewhere around 10% were A. percula. Preliminary analysis of the more current, unpublished data, suggest the number of clownfishes (all species) imported to the U.S. had dropped to around 300,000 in 2011, with still only about 10% (roughly 30,000) being A. percula—a far cry from the 200,000 number Visser cites, but also significantly higher than the zero that some trade advocates claim.
Toward Measurable Conservation Objectives
Polarizing and oversimplifying conservation issues is the easy way to tell the story, but there is nothing easy about conservation. By taking the easy way, as both Visser and many marine aquarium trade advocates have done, a fight is now shaping up between aquarists represented by the pet trade and NMFS. This seems unfortunate because, in actuality, NMFS has shown a willingness to listen and even work with the trade. It was, after all, in part because of the efforts organized by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council’s (PIJAC) Marine Ornamental Defense Committee that NMFS, when challenged with additional data, looked at the science and backed off its initial proposal to list 66 species of coral under the ESA. In the end, less than a third of the species were listed, but instead of acknowledging this as a victory and vowing to continue to work together with NMFS to put protections in place that both ensure measurable habitat conservation and continue to allow for a sustainable trade that has been shown capable of major positive conservation outcomes, PIJAC appears to have instead instigated a response replete with exaggerated rhetoric and an all-or-nothing mentality.
Perhaps PIJAC’s response is appropriate given that it is a lobbying organization, and defending trade is their driving mission. In the final equation, however, I can’t help but imagine all this hyperbole makes it easy to miss the central issue. The main attraction here is that global climate change, sea surface temperature rise, ocean acidification, and other anthropogenic stressors like terrestrial runoff, dredging and the like are serious threats to reefs and reef species. This isn’t really about the aquarium trade. Harvesting of A. percula for the aquarium trade was a low threat to the species in 2005, and it is even a lower threat today, but what of the plight of anemones on which clownfishes depend? Just as the polar bear needs its ice, the clownfish needs its anemone, and if both ice and anemones are falling victim to global climate change, than it follows that both the polar bear and the clownfish need assistance if we want to mitigate their risk for extinction? Is the ESA the right way to go about that? For many, the verdict on that question is still out, but rather than polarizing the conservation debate through often politically-motivated arguments rife with misinformation and driven by the general public’s affinity for an animated character, wouldn’t it be better to focus on the actual data and work together towards a solution?
* It’s worth pointing out that NMFS also misread the data by ignoring that some wild harvested A. percula do indeed originate in Indonesia. Nonetheless, the number is relatively small, and the error is nowhere near as significant as Visser’s. NMFS will resolve the issue during the status review with help from scientists who have the data.
** It should be noted that in their final rule, NMFS found that the risk of extinction to these coral species from the aquarium trade was “low.” NMFS is far more concerned with issues such as global climate change, sea surface temperature rise, ocean acidification, and the like.
*** Several edits were made to this piece to correct typos, but nothing that was edited changed the content either written or implied.