Data Collection Tool for Aquarium Trade is Finalist in Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge

Screen Shot 2015-09-18 at 1.12.31 PMThe New England Aquarium was selected as one of forty-four finalists in the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge with a project that aims to improve the identification of illegal trade in marine aquarium animals. The project is titled “Live digital invoices for real-time data analytics to enhance detection of illegal wildlife trade” and seeks to further develop a real-time data system that digitizes invoices and automatically checks species identity and origin. The project builds on the success of the Marine Aquarium Biodiversity and Trade Flow database, a joint project of New England Aquarium and Roger Williams University with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge is a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) initiative in partnership with the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Institution, and TRAFFIC.

Rewarding Innovative Science and Technology Solutions

The goal of the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge is to reward innovative science and technology solutions that help combat wildlife trafficking. “A number of factors have spurred a sharp increase in the illegal wildlife trade in recent years,” states theWildlife Crime Tech Challenge website. “[T]here is growing consensus that traditional models of conservation are no longer sufficient to protect biodiversity and preserve ecosystems.” In the marine aquarium trade, the best available trade data show that more than 80% of U.S. marine aquarium animals originate from two source counties about which we have the greatest concerns in terms of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. A real-time data analytics system such as the one proposed by the New England Aquarium could help identify illegal activity and promote sustainability.

The Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge focuses on four main areas:

  • Detecting Transit Routes
  • Strengthening Forensic Evidence and Data Sharing
  • Reducing Consumer Demand
  • Tackling Corruption

The New England Aquarium project most specifically addresses the area of strengthening forensic evidence through the collection of data. In addition to developing a real-time data system for digitizing invoices and checking for species identity and origin, the project also involves creating a tablet-based platform linking species identification to invoices in order to enable forensic probability-based assessments, as well as cross referencing import and export documents to identify illegal trade.

Central to the project is the optical character recognition (OCR) program that was developed to gather data for the Marine Aquarium Biodiversity and Trade Flow database. “The project starts with the marine aquarium trade as the model of a biodiverse complex trade,” says Dr. Andrew Rhyne of the New England Aquarium and Roger Williams University, “but the tools are able to be used in any trade system. It could easily be used for any imported species or parts.” Rhyne is one of the principle investigators on the project.

Another Marine Aquarium Related Finalist

One other project selected as a finalist also specifically seeks to address the marine aquarium trade. For the FishesTank Watch–The Good Fish/Bad Fish Tool for Saltwater Aquariums” project aims to reduce consumer demand for wild-harvest marine aquarium fishes by providing a mobile app that gives consumers the ability to easily identify popular aquarium species and distinguish between those are potentially aquacultured and those that are wild-caught. According to For the Fishes, the rationale for the project is that cyanide use is “widespread in the capture of tens of millions of coral reef fish for the global marine aquarium trade.”

While purchasing only aquacultured aquarium fishes would remove any possibility of acquiring a fish harvested with cyanide or other destructive fishing practices, most aquarists point out that only a small percentage of marine aquarium fishes are currently able to be bred in captivity due to the challenging reproductive strategies of many reef fishes. They also point out that many reef fishes are harvested sustainably for the marine aquarium trade, and that such any “Good Fish/Bad Fish” app should include sustainably harvested fishes like those originating from Hawaii’s or Australia’s well-managed marine aquarium fisheries.

What the Data Show

In addition to the above criticisms, the premise behind the Tank Watch app is unsupported by the extant data. In 2011, the most recent year for which good data is available, the Marine Aquarium Biodiversity and Trade Flow database shows that fewer than 7 million marine aquarium fishes were imported to the United States. Given that the U.S. trade in marine aquarium fishes is generally thought to account for between 50 and 70 percent of global trade, it is unlikely that “tens of millions” of fishes are harvested globally for the aquarium trade as For the Fishes claims in its Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge application.


Percent of Marine Aquarium Animal Imports by Source [SOURCE: Rhyne AL, Tlusty MF, Szczebak J, Holmberg RJ. (2015) When one code = 2,300 species: Expanding our understanding of the trade in aquatic marine wildlife. PeerJ PrePrints 3:e1447]

While it’s true the majority of marine aquarium fishes originate in source countries about which we have the most concerns insofar as IUU fishing is concerned, efforts to reform those fisheries based on data are underway (including the New England AquariumWildlife Crime Tech Challenge). Marine aquarium fishes harvested in many of the smaller developing island nations are harvested in a sustainable manner and provide a high-value, low-biomass fishery that has proven good for reefs, fishers and fisher communities. The Tank Watch app would potentially marginalize these fisheries, creating a vacuum allowing room for more destructive and even illegal resource extraction industries.

Prizes up to $500,000 to be Awarded

All forty-four Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge finalists will now submit a prize application, and the Wildlife Crime Tech Challenge panel of nine judges will select numerous projects to receive $10,000 in addition to promotional and networking opportunities and technical assistance to scale or accelerate their solutions. In addition, winning projects will be able to compete for one of up to four grand prizes worth as much as $500,000. Given the planned 2016 release of the Disney/Pixar movie Finding Dory and the expected increased demand for aquarium fishes like the blue tang (Paracanthurus hepatus), securing reliable data on trade has perhaps never been more important. 

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.
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