Perhaps it’s the case that people engaging passionately in a hobby–and interacting primarily with other hobbyists–are, at least to a certain extent, tone deaf to the optics of certain practices considered “normal” in that hobby. Consider, for example, the way a non-angler may view an angler’s social media post of a fish held high out of the water, dry fingers in the gills and belly squeezed tight for a photograph. Catch-and-release hook mortality data aside, if that non-angler is inclined to be anti-fishing, the photograph certainly does the angling community no favors whether or not the fish is harmed. In other words, the optics are bad.
In the saltwater aquarium hobby, it is fairly common on social media to see pictures of a particularly striking fish held out of the water or held against the wall of the aquarium for a photograph. In these situations, the aquarist is concerned with showing off the features that make the individual fish unique or particularly desirable, usually in the hopes of fetching a high price for the fish. The buyer, of course, scrutinizes these pictures to assess if the price, which can run into the thousands, is justified. The seller, the buyer and all the lookie loos who like and share the picture on Facebook see all this as “normal.” They certainly don’t view it as reprehensible. Again, however, the way non-aquarists–and especially non-aquarists inclined to be anti-aquarium keeping–view these pictures does the aquarium community no favors whether or not the fish is harmed. Once again the optics are bad.
Some may scoff. They may say looking at the optics of these images–and how they may be viewed (and used) by detractors regardless of the effects on the fishes–is just more political correctness in a world full of squeamish people. Others will chastise this blog entry’s opening image for the implicit comparison to slavery–a comparison frequently employed by the vegan movement, as well as groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, and easily co-opted by anti-aquarium activists if these images persist. Keep in mind we’re talking about optics here, and we’re talking about a hobby that is in the midst of a PR crisis.
The data are clear when it comes to angling–#KeepEmWet (i.e., limiting air time, reducing handling and keeping fish away from dry surfaces) reduces the number of fishes that die after being released. Is it the same for aquarium fishes? I know of no peer-reviewed, reputable studies, but I’ve certainly observed supply chain chain practices, including photography and beyond, that fall far short of the aquarium trade’s equivalent of #KeepEmWet best practices, and I wonder how this poor handling in the supply chain from reef to reef tank affects mortality. Speculation aside, I’d argue aquarists need go no farther than the optics of posting, liking and sharing these pictures in the service of sales, especially when a hobby as embattled as saltwater aquarium keeping is concerned.
Holding a marine aquarium fish out of the water for a photograph is generally unnecessary, especially if the purpose is to fetch the highest price. Photographing a fish pressed up against the side of an aquarium, in a container that is too small, has too little water or is clearly overcrowded and stressful to the animal for the purpose of showing off that fish to a potential buyer is a practice aquarists should readily and actively shun. Plus, if one really want to photograph that fish, that person has other options where the fish looks more natural and is less stressed. As fly fishing guide Derek Young (Emerging Rivers Guide Services) wrote in Orvis News last year:
An alternative I’ve been using is the Photarium from the Wild Fish Conservancy in Duvall, Washington. Originally designed as a tool for fish observation and study in the field, and in much smaller sizes, the clear plexiglass box is designed to keep the fish in the water and provide the opportunity for a photograph–without fingers and hands in the way, or the risk of dropping the fish on the boat on bank….. [I]t’s simple: net the fish, fill the box, place the fish in it, and take the photo. The fish doesn’t have to even leave the water. The fish appreciate it, and the images are truer to life and show the fish in a more natural state – gills wet and breathing in the water!
Of course the most reputable retailers of saltwater aquarium fishes do this already as a best practice. Sure it takes longer and requires more skill and forethought, but the end result is better for all concerned.
So next time you see a picture on Facebook or Twitter of a seller handling a saltwater aquarium fish for a picture, consider the optics of that image, especially for non-aquarists. Then consider not liking or sharing the picture, and perhaps go so far as tagging the image with the hashtag #KeepEmWet, something that has become relatively common in angling circles.
I’m not suggested using the hashtag as a way of shaming the photographer/seller, but instead as a way to start a conversation–as a way to reinforce that aquarists respect the animals they keep. As Young says, “We’ve got a big opportunity…to foster the new energy that social media and sharing of fish photographs…gives us today. So the way we capture those epic shots should advance, too. We have…better cameras, and a better understanding of how fish handling out of the water affects survivability. Getting great fish photos and handling fish better can go hand in hand.”
There are those who will always be anti-aquarium keeping and anti-angling, and for them, those respective hobbies won’t suddenly be off the hook because hobbyists handle the fishes better. Time and again, however, I hear aquarists say they want to do everything in their power to be good stewards of the animals they keep–animals that, more often than not, are collected on reefs thousands of miles away. Given that a picture is worth a thousand words, #KeepEmWet appears a worthwhile step in the right direction.