Is the Aquarium Trade under Attack?

Screen Shot 2014-09-10 at 10.21.02 PMIn recent days, the number of marine aquarium trade media outlets and trade advocates repeating some variation of the phrase “Our Hobby is under Attack” has increased exponentially. But is it true? Is the aquarium hobby or trade really under attack?

As someone who has followed these issues for the past six years for CORAL Magazine and other media outlets, I think it’s fair to say the marine aquarium trade is under attack, but the attack is not, as many have either claimed or implied in recent days, coming from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s (NOAA) National Marine Fishery Service (NMFS).

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 8.04.51 AMTo be more specific, the recent listing by NMFS of 20 species of coral under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) does not constitute an attack on trade. The ongoing status review of the orange clownfish also does not directly constitute an attack on trade, although the Service has stated the necessary data to assess the trade’s effect on the species is lacking (they are far more concerned, as is the petitioning organization, with the effects of ocean acidification and sea surface temperature rise on host anemones). The ongoing status review of the Banggai cardinalfish does, in large part, constitute an attack on trade, but that’s an attack fairly well supported by the data.

With the exception of the Banggai cardinalfish, the ESA listings and proposed listings are focused largely on global anthropogenic stressors like climate change, ocean acidification, sea surface temperature change, habitat destruction and the like, not the aquarium trade. 

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 9.32.50 AMWhat does constitute an attack on trade are the actions of Hawaii-based anti-trade activists like Robert Wintner and Rene Umberger and the organizations they represent like the Snorkel Bob Foundation, For the Fishes, the Humane Society of the United States, and others. These anti-trade activists and activist organizations are now bolstered on the ground and in the popular media by the engagement of the the high profile Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. These attacks generally lack data, are appeals to emotion and often come down to a debate about ethics, not fishery sustainability.

These attacks against the marine aquarium trade in Hawaii, which have frequently been elevated to the legislative level, have been going on for quite some time and represent a real threat to the marine aquarium trade and hobby far beyond Hawaii. If, based on these attacks, legislation is passed in Hawaii that shuts down the State’s aquarium fisheries, then additional regulation and legislation on the federal level will not be far behind. Based on the data and the best available science, Hawaii’s aquarium fisheries are some of the best studied fisheries in Hawaii and some of the best managed aquarium fisheries in the world. If these fisheries are deemed “unsustainable,” then the majority of the world’s other aquarium fisheries–most of which lack data, transparency and any semblance of adaptive fishery management–could follow suit. Because of individuals and organizations who have confronted these attacks with data, no recent legislation aimed at ending the trade in Hawaii has made it to a vote, but the attacks continue.

In the case of the recent ESA listings and proposed listings, which are most frequently cited as of late as “an attack on the hobby,” NMFS says it is not “attacking” the marine aquarium trade. NMFS says it does its best to consider all the data before making any determination, and NMFS points to the coral listing final rule document as evidence. The document is an 1104-page document discussing the proposed listings, the data and public comment regarding those listings, and the rationale for reducing the number of corals listed to 20 out of the 66 the Service initially proposed. It states clearly throughout that the risks for extinction are bigger issues than the aquarium trade, although the Service also states it has concerns about the sustainability of the trade. The word “aquarium” shows up 22 times in the document. The word “acidification” (as in ocean acidification) shows up over 800 times.

While the coral listings are not an attack on the trade, the consequences of the listings may have serious effects on the marine aquarium trade and hobby. As such, it is certainly prudent for aquarists to inform themselves about these issues and engage in the process where appropriate. It’s also prudent for aquarists to support those organizations that can help elevate their response to a level individual aquarists may not be able to achieve. Before doing so, however, it’s essential that aquarists understand the facts and separate them from the rhetoric.

Here are a few facts to keep in mind:

  • The listing of a species as threatened (all 20 coral species were listed as threatened and not endangered) does not automatically result in prohibitions on possession or trade.
  • The listing of a species as threatened does not mean that commercial aquaculture must automatically come to an end.
  • NMFS has consistently stated it intends to work with trade as it undertakes the additional steps associated with the listings.

The process for NMFS putting additional prohibitions and regulations in place is a fairly straightforward public process that is, at present, not the NMFS’s top priority (there are other legally mandated steps that must be undertaken first). In other words, this is the time for aquarists (and for the organizations that represent aquarists and the trade) to gather the data and look to demonstrate with data that the marine aquarium trade does not increase the risks to critical populations of these listed species and does not preclude populations from maintaining viability. Now is the time to show that certain prohibitions, if enacted, may negatively affect coral recovery and restoration efforts. Now is the time to demonstrate that the marine aquarium trade is more interested in working with NMFS in the best interest of the species than defending itself against a largely manufactured, all-or-nothing “attack” from the federal government on the marine aquarium trade. 

* The Marine Aquarium Societies of North America (MASNA) changed their wording from the one shown in this post’s lead image to remove the “attack” language. The change was made after this blog posted was drafted. The new wording, as posted on the organization’s Facebook page, is as follows:

Screen Shot 2014-09-12 at 11.04.48 AM


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.
This entry was posted in Endangered Species Act (ESA), Global Climate Change, Hawaii, Indo-Pacific, Legislation, Ornamental Fisheries and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Is the Aquarium Trade under Attack?

  1. Roger Vitko MASNA Secretary says:

    I never read the MASNA post as referring to an attack by US government agencies. The “attack” was instigated by the Center for Biological Diversity in requesting the listings and in the threat of lawsuits if the bombardment of listing requests was not answered in a timely manner. As I understand it the purpose of raising funds for PIJAC is to be able to supply the government agencies with the needed information to counter the claims as with limited man power they cannot sufficiently research all claims on their own and respond in a timely manner.

    Their demands for listing are based on unfounded passions and as I understand it will potentially unfairly regulate even captive propagated lines of the species in question. Further, it has been noted even by the government agencies as I have read on Reefbuilders that differentiation on a species level will be impossible in vivo so the ban will be far more widespread than the requested listings and I would hazard to guess this group knows that. Their efforts are misguided, it has been shown time and time again that people can only appreciate what they can see (i.e. by keeping and visiting aquariums) and what has monetary value, in the amazon for instance, collecting of ornamental fishes provides a sustainable livelihood when compared with gold mining, forestry and farming which are the other potential livelihoods of the inhabitants. Regulating collection will do nothing to stop the cause they claim “ocean acidification”, in fact, it could by logically argued that having lines in captivity may ultimately be of benefit to repopulating the area if they are correct. It likely will only aggravate the cause as now the collectors will be forced into other lines of work which typically in small 2nd and 3rd world island nations will be production of charcoal, lime and cement, farming, fishing, etc all of which will have no stake in preservation and accelerate the decline due to run off and waste as well as overuse and damage by drag nets, motors, etc.

    As the secretary of MASNA I can agree that we may have been somewhat clumsy in our wording, we are a volunteer organization and none of us are professional writers, however I don’t believe we ever intended to imply an attack by the government agencies at least that was never how I read it.

    • Ret Talbot says:

      Thanks for the response, Roger. I’ll be discussing the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in a later post. Insofar as the immediate situation is concerned, however, it is the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) that, based on an extensive review of the science, listed the species, not CBD. While I understand your statement that “[CBD’s] demands for listing are based on unfounded passions,” the listings are based on a lot more science than the CBD petition put forward (it’s worth mentioning again that much of the more current data was brought forward with PIJAC’s help).

  2. Hyrum Valentine says:

    “As the secretary of MASNA I can agree that we may have been somewhat clumsy in our wording, we are a volunteer organization and none of us are professional writers” Come on. masna has access to so many professional writers or they could hire one. the “woe is us, we are only poor volunteers” makes masna seem like an ineffective org. why should anyone support you if you are just volunteers that don’t do a good job? stop making excuse do a better job or if you cant do a better job, stop trying to do more than you can actually do.

    • Roger Vitko MASNA Secretary says:

      Unfortunately, the timeline for such an effort was not their. The MASNA board received the PIJAC letter in the late morning of Sept 9. The letter went public by 3pm the same day. To coordinate an effective response we had to act faster that the option of reaching out to an author or writer would allow.

      At the end of the day, we are on the same team, we work for the same cause. MASNA has raised $2925 for PIJAC until now, which will be matched 100%, that is in less than 72hrs.

      Your input is welcome, our meetings are public and held every 2nd Wednesday at 9pm ET.

  3. Hyrum Valentine says:

    are you saying that you didn’t know anything about the letter before you got it? you didn’t know it was coming? you couldn’t have had a writer waiting for it? you do know that everything does not have to be done at the last second yes? 90 percent could be done in advance, and i would bet that masna knew the intent of the letter before 9am sept 9.
    my comments had noting to do with thematching project. they were about masna continually claming they cant be effective because they are volunteers.
    why would i want to be part of a meeting of a group of people who keep telling us that that are only volunteers? why doesn’t masna head hunt people that have skills instead of just hoping useful people will start attending meetings? stop being reactionary and get proactive. and i just gave you input please pass it along – stop claiming you cant do things because you are volunteers, it makes you sound useless.

  4. Hyrum Valentine says:

    “MASNA has raised $2925 for PIJAC until now, which will be matched 100%, that is in less than 72hrs.” an effective organization might have raised 10 times that in 72 hours had they had a good plan in place

  5. fredeau says:

    Thanks for the article, which I find very interesting, I allowed to edit it in French on:

  6. Pingback: Serious business regarding the viability of our hobby - Page 3 - Manhattan Reefs

  7. J. Roberts says:

    We should all join hands and do whatever we could do, be it big or small, it could still make a difference. I have many friends who are fish collectors themselves and they are wary about what is happening lately. I think, we should increase awareness about this one. Thanks for posting, very informative.

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