The Pet Industry Joint Advisor Council (PIJAC) updated its Aquatic Defense Fund webpage earlier this month to correct or remove much of the misinformation previously published on the lobbying group’s landing page for the aquarium industry. As a lobbying group, PIJAC opposes most legislation and administrative rulemaking that could limit pet ownership and commercial activity surrounding pets. Historically, the aquarium trade has not been a major focus of PIJAC’s lobbying efforts–in large part because aquarium trade businesses have not traditionally supported PIJAC in the same way as other sectors of the pet industry. With the number of threats to the aquarium trade on the rise, a core group of trade leaders making up the PIJAC Aquatics Committee are working closely with PIJAC to mount a defense against the most pressing threats–ones that could severely restrict if not end the trade in aquarium fishes.
In order for PIJAC to engage effectively in defense of the aquarium trade, the lobbying group needs more than industry leaders advising it–it needs funding. As such, PIJAC has increased its fundraising efforts to aquarium trade businesses and individual aquarists. Industry insiders who spoke on condition of anonymity express frustration that fundraising has been so challenging, and perhaps that is a leading cause of some of the misinformation that has dominated PIJAC’s public messaging and fundraising solicitations over the past several months. It is, after all, difficult to explain the full complexities of many of the issues facing the trade, and it’s far easier to raise funds if you focus on the worst case scenario. There is a fine line, however, between convincing your audience of the severity of the situation and outright fear-mongering.
Desire and Reality
The 10-member PIJAC Aquatics Committee has consistently expressed its desire to educate aquarists and those who work in the trade with factual information regarding trade threats. That desire, though, has not always shown through in PIJAC’s public messaging on its website, blog and other outreach efforts. For example, over the past two years, PIJAC consistently advised aquarists and aquarium trade businesses that if corals proposed for listing under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) were listed, the trade in those corals would end. Full stop.
While the listing of 20 corals as “threatened” under the ESA in October 2014 (announced in August 2014) can still have a significant effect on trade, including an import ban, cessation of interstate commerce and an end to coral aquaculture operations, those outcomes are by no means the only possible ones. In fact, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration‘s (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has consistently pointed out that a “threatened” listing means little if any immediate change in any of these trade-related activities.
Nonetheless, up until recently, PIJAC has continued to use the following bullet point in its messaging:
The NOAA proposal to list 65 species of corals as ‘endangered’ or ‘threatened’ species would ban all imports, prevent interstate commerce and shut down U.S. coral culturing operations.
Not surprisingly, this inaccurate talking point, as well as others, has been picked up by organizations and individuals joining forces with PIJAC to help raise funds. For example, the Marine Aquarium Societies of North America (MASNA) used the same messaging in their matching gift campaign, as did several aquarium companies and industry leaders advocating support of PIJAC. Some of the aquarium hobby media also picked up on the false statements and published articles further codifying the misinformation amongst aquarists and severally polarizing the debate. Most damaging, some media outlets went so far as to aggressively vilify NMFS and its scientists at exactly the same time that the government agency was soliciting support for a collaborative, multi-stakeholder process that would provide protection for the listed species while not unnecessarily disrupting activity that does not interfere with the conservation of the species.
A New Leaf
With a new year just a handful of hours away for North America, PIJAC’s recent revision of its Aquatics Defense Fund webpage may signal a new chapter in how the aquarium trade engages in the ongoing threats facing it. In recent years, the number of attacks on the trade by anti-trade activists representing both environmental and animals rights groups have increased dramatically. Some of these attacks are warranted, as the trade remains in a precarious position, heavily dependent upon wild animals harvested from aquarium fisheries in source countries about which there is the most concern when it comes to sustainability and legality. Many of the anti-trade activists, however, are instead focused on attacking sustainable aquarium fisheries like those in Hawaii. The Hawaii marine aquarium fishery is the most studied inshore fishery in Hawaii, and the data consistently indicate data-based fisheries management is working. Despite this fact, activists, fueled largely by emotional and ethical arguments wrapped in the guise of unsustainability, continue attacking it.
PIJAC has consistently addressed each new anti-aquarium fishery development in Hawaii at both the county and state level. They have insured that testimony is presented at county council meetings and in the state legislature, and they have rallied support from a wide range of groups and organizations based on ongoing fishery management and the data, In fact, PIJAC has played a leading role in insuring that the data remain in the forefront of the decision making process in Hawaii. Not only is this important for those directly associated with this aquarium fishery, but it’s also important for the marine aquarium trade as a whole. A well-managed, sustainable aquarium fishery in Hawaii could, after all, provide the blueprint for sustainable aquarium fisheries in other countries, thereby improving the trade globally.
In addition to its work in Hawaii, PIJAC has been engaged in the process to list numerous animals under the ESA. While PIJAC’s approach has been criticized as defending trade at all cost, they have committed the resources to make sure that NMFS has the best, most current data at its disposal when making decisions about listings. For example, PIJAC was directly involved in funding the publication of Dr. J.E.N. Veron’s coral data between the time when NMFS proposed listing 66 coral species and the final rule listing just 20. While many factors went into NMFS’s decision to revise the proposed rule, the Veron data were certainly an important component, as it brought previously unpublished information into the decision making process.
The type of work described above is obviously agenda-oriented and mission-specific. PIJAC is a lobbying group, not an advocacy or educational organization, and they are not setting out to reform the trade. Their job is to defend trade and provide a counter-balance to anti-trade activists and trade attacks based on emotion and not data. To do this work takes money, and PIJAC will need more support from trade, and to a much lesser extent, hobby, to be effective. PIJAC’s misuse of facts and hyperbole in soliciting funds is hopefully a thing of the past, although it will take some time for the misinformation to be unlearned. The long-awaited revision to the Aquatics Defense Fund landing page is a very good start.
What Actually Changed?
The most notable revision to the Aquatics Defense Fund landing page is the change to the bullet points most often used to garner support and solicit funds. While these bullet points do not represent an objective, comprehensive overview of the issues, they do more accurately represent the threats to the aquarium trade.
“The PIJAC Aquatics Committee is committed to providing the aquarium industry and greater hobby community with the most factual information regarding its activities, the threats and issues that face the industry, and what the committee is doing to address them,” says Chris Buerner, committee co-chair and President of Quality Marine. “In that spirit, we have updated the landing page to reflect the most current state of affairs as we understand them.” Quality Marine is the largest importer of marine aquarium animals into the United States.
In the first bullet point, instead of saying: “Clownfish and damselfish are in danger of being declared an ‘endangered species; which would terminate all imports into the U.S. and ban interstate movement of both wild harvested and captive bred fish within the U.S.,” the new bullet point reads:
Endangered Species Act Petitions to list the orange clownfish (Amphiprion percula), the yellowtail damselfish (Microspathodon chrysurus), and the Banggai cardinalfish (Pteropogon kauderni) could terminate all imports into the U.S. and ban interstate movement of both wild harvested and captive bred fish within the U.S.
In the second bullet point, instead of saying: “The NOAA proposal to list 65 species of corals as ‘endangered’ or ‘threatened’ species would ban all imports, prevent interstate commerce and shut down U.S. coral culturing operations,” the new bullet point states:
The NOAA decision to list 20 species of corals as “endangered” or “threatened” species will ban all imports, prevent interstate commerce and shut down U.S. coral culturing operations, unless unprecedented exemptions are granted to allow continued commercial take, importation, and interstate commerce of wild species, or at a minimum aqua-cultured specimens of those species.
The last two bullet points on the previous version of the webpage concerned Hawaii and were largely factual, although outdated. PIJAC has replaced these two bullet points with a more evergreen bullet point which reads as follows:
Ongoing anti-trade litigation and industry-crippling bill introductions at both the County and State levels in Hawaii are posing serious threats to the survival of the aquarium trade fishery in Hawaii. These efforts rooted in moral and ethical-differences often discount the science, data, and ultimately the reality of the best managed near-shore fishery in the state. Needless to say, the effects of a Hawaiian aquarium trade shut-down would be devastating.
In addition to the revisions above, a new bullet point was added addressing ESA listings and the so-called “similarity of appearance rule”:
The similarity of appearance rule could significantly broaden the reach and impacts of any ruling to list any fish or invertebrate species under the Endangered Species Act, causing sweeping impacts to our trade and the hobby. A large number of the coral species in trade are difficult to differentiate from those that have been listed.
While some problems remain in the bullet points (e.g., NOAA did not “decide to list 20 species of corals as ‘endangered’ or ‘threatened’ species”–the prosed rule lists all as threatened and discussing “unprecedented exemptions” is both debatable and puts the cart before the horse), the revised information on the PIJAC Aquatic Defense Fund webpage is generally factual. The bias is abundantly clear in the way the information is presented, but nobody should be surprised by that fact given PIJAC’s overall mission. These issues pose threats to the aquarium trade and hobby, and the result could be the end of the aquarium trade as it is known today. As a lobbying group, PIJAC will oppose most legislation and administrative rulemaking that could end or even limit pet ownership and commercial activity surrounding pets–that’s their job. When it comes to the complexities of these issues–when it comes to analyzing whether all threats to trade are bad or how NMFS implements the ESA–the aquarium trade media will hopefully step-up and provide the type of comprehensive, unbiased information both trade and hobby so desperately need.