The president and CEO of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), Ed Sayres, attended the Aquatic Experience this past weekend and blogged about it on Monday. In his blog entry, Sayres asks, “[W]hy is the aquatics community under attack by misguided animal rights activists? How could all of the energy, enthusiasm and education around aquatics be a bad thing? Why stop a child from smiling at a clownfish?” Next weekend’s New York Times Magazine will run an essay titled “The Dark Side of Zootopia” in which Charles Siebert writes about the experience of viewing wild animals in a zoo. “[A]ny zoo,” he writes, “in whatever form, becomes not a demonstration of our prowess so much as a pathetically confused and protracted apology made to a series of wholly diminished and uninterested subjects.” Clearly the spectrum of opinion is wide, running the gamut from those who see our interactions with captive wildlife as wholly positive to those who see it a necessary evil or even an outright affront to our relationship with nature.
One of the reasons this discussion about our relationship to wildlife in captivity interests me so much is that I think it is really about finding ourselves in a world where the social constructs we have created make us feel ever removed from a wildness to which we have a primordial affinity. Much of my reporting on fisheries touches on this discussion, as both food fisheries and ornamental (aquarium) fisheries are dependent to a greater or lesser degree on animals taken from the wild. In particular, the marine aquarium trade, which is heavily dependent on wild animals, finds itself smack-dab in the middle of this discussion. Unfortunately, the discussion too often deteriorates beyond debate into a realm of rhetoric and hyperbole that threatens to obscure the real issues.
The Extremes in an Ongoing Debate
On the one end of the spectrum are the anti-trade activists like Robert Wintner (aka Snorkel Bob), who believe keeping marine fishes in aquaria is ethically wrong. At the other extreme, there is Sayres (and by extension PIJAC) who sees aquarium-keeping as a right. Both sides, in attempting to further their respective agendas, have unfortunately been guilty of abandoning the middle ground of fact, data and rationality. At times, both sides have chosen to ignore the subtleties, skate across the gray areas and deal in the certainties of black-and-white, us-versus-them.
Perhaps the race to the extremes isn’t really a problem so long as we understand it for what it is. Wintner, after all, represents anti-trade activists who time and again say they don’t care about the data because the activity of keeping marine fishes in aquaria is categorically wrong. For his part, Sayres represents the pet industry’s lobbying group, which sees responsibly owning pets as a right and the defense of that right at almost any cost as being justified. The easy take-home from viewing aquarium trade issues within this polarizing context is that all aquarium trade issues should be viewed as supporting either one side or the other.
Of course nothing could be further from the truth.
Not so Simple
When it comes to the orange clownfish (Amphiprion percula) and and twenty species of coral that are occupying much of PIJAC’s aquarium trade engagement at present, it’s not as simple as “the aquatics community under attack by misguided animal rights activists.” I’ve written at length about Wintner and the efforts of anti-trade activists to shut down the marine aquarium trade in Hawaii based largely on ethical grounds packaged as accusations of unsustainability. I’m not going to rehash those arguments here. It’s clear why Wintner and other anti-trade activists use these tactics: misusing data, disseminating half-truths, embellished or inaccurate information in support of a cause is effective. It rallies the base. Garners support. Motivates actions. It is also reprehensible…
…regardless of who is employing the strategy.
Framing the issue of the future of the orange clownfish and twenty species of coral in the aquarium hobby as an attack by misguided animal rights activists is not representative of the reality. The threats to the aquarium hobby to which Sayres alludes in his blog entry are not about activists’ efforts to ban the trade. The orange clownfish is currently undergoing a status review by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to determine whether the species is warranted for Endangered Species Act (ESA) listing based on loss of habitat secondary to climate change. The twenty corals recently listed as threatened under the ESA were listed as “threatened” primarily because of climate change and ocean acidification. The threat to the extinction of these species due to the aquarium trade is considered low. In short, these listings and proposed listings are not primarily about the aquarium trade nor activists’ efforts to shut it down. They are about a much larger conversation regarding climate change that is being side-stepped by an oversimplification and polarization of the issue by Sayres and PIJAC.
Fear-mongering and the Blatant Misuse of the Facts
In the same way I have criticized Wintner and other anti-aquarium fishery activists for exaggeration, fear-mongering and blatant misuse of data, I feel compelled to also call Sayres and PIJAC out when they play fast and loose with the facts. Sayres writes in his blog entry that “it became clear that our right to keep fish as pets is in jeopardy.” He tells us that “[t]hose who oppose pet choice and responsible pet ownership of aquatics could wipe out the hobby for everyone, and that “[t]o address this threat, PIJAC is advocating for aquatic species, their owners and the trade on the most pressing issues facing the aquatics community.” Sayres then goes on to outline several of these issues including the following:
Clownfish and damselfish are in danger of being declared “endangered species,” which would end all imports into the U.S. and ban interstate movement of both wild-harvested and captive-bred fish within the U.S.
A proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to list 66 species of corals as “endangered” or “threatened” would ban all imports, prevent interstate commerce and shut down U.S. coral culturing operations.
Regarding the clownfish, Sayre’s statement is partially true, although all but one of the damelsfishes were determined “not warranted” for ESA listing back in early September (so I’m not sure why he’s still talking about them). What Sayres doesn’t say, however, is that if the orange clownfish is listed under the ESA (not at all a certainty, as the bar for NMFS to commence an ESA status review is quite low), it would most likely be listed as “threatened,” not “endangered.” A “threatened” listing would not end imports nor ban interstate movement of either wild or cultured fish because NMFS does not implement the ESA the same way the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) does. While it’s true that subsequent rules could be written to prohibit commercial activity of both wild and cultured orange clownfish, NMFS has said in similar cases that they have no intent on unnecessarily disrupting trade so long as the conservation of the species is not jeopardized.
As for the coral species, Sayre’s statement is flatly false and clearly comes across as little more than fear-mongering. PIJAC has been saying this on their website and in other communications for months, despite protests that the information is not factual. An update last week to PIJAC’s Aquatic Defense Fund webpage failed to correct the misinformation, and now PIJAC’s president and CEO is actively putting this distortion of reality again in front of stakeholders as a primary rationale for why they should finically support the lobbying group.
The reality is that of the 66 species named in a proposed rule for listing under the ESA in 2012, only 20 were listed (thanks in part to PIJAC helping fund the publication of previously unpublished data so NMFS could consider it). Again, as in the case of mentioning the damselfishes above, I’m not sure why Sayres is still talking about the 46 species not listed. All 20 species that were listed were listed as “threatened” (not “endangered”), and no new prohibitions were put in place as a result of the listings. It is false to say, as Sayre does in his blog post, that the listings “would ban all imports, prevent interstate commerce and shut down U.S. coral culturing operations.” While prohibitions on actions concerning these listed coral species may be forthcoming through a transparent and public rulemaking process (where stakeholders will be solicited for comment), so too may exceptions to those prohibitions that would allow acaquculture, mariculture and commercial trade. Once again, NMFS has indicated they have no intent on unnecessarily disrupting trade so long as the conservation of the species in question is not jeopardized.
Nuances & Complexities
The threats to the aquarium hobby posed by “misguided animal rights activists” who misuse data are real, and PIJAC is generally doing a good job combatting them. Just yesterday, for example, PIJAC submitted testimony against a piece of misguided anti-trade legislation in West Hawaii and made sure they had a representative at a county council meeting to present the testimony. As already mentioned, PIJAC helped fund the publication of valuable data that played a role in NMFS reducing the numbers of coral listed in the final rule from 66 to 20. To continue doing this work on behalf of the trade and hobby requires financial support, but for PIJAC to solicit that support through scare tactics and hyperbole is as reprehensible as the tactics employed by the anti-trade activists.
The threats are real–both to the hobby and to marine species in general as a result of global climate change. The issues are complex and require a thoughtful, sophisticated response, not one that glosses over the details, unnecessarily polarizes the issues and threatens to pit the trade and hobby against the best available science and the conservation of the animals aquarists claim to love so deeply. These listings and proposed listings are not about activists trying to “stop a child from smiling at a clownfish,” as Sayres suggests. They are about insuring that clownfish and other marine species will persist in the face of global climate change, ocean acidification and other global stressors. As self-proclaimed lovers of marine species, that is the nuanced and complex discussion aquarists should be having.