In 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).
To 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.
What 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: