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A Must-Read Review of the Wild-Caught Aquarium Fish Sector

It’s time the ornamental aquatic industry stood up for itself, not just by refuting accusations with good science, but by proactively showing the world the true face of the industry.

Collection of marine fish for home aquaria represents, at most, a mere 0.0001 percent of the total global marine harvest.

John Dawes

We all are used to reading and witnessing attacks on the ornamental aquatic industry, which is accused of ransacking, plundering and even “raping” the world’s reefs and freshwater habitats to satisfy an insatiable consumer hunger for aquarium fish. Often, the accusations include false statistics, such as stating that more than 90 percent of marine fish are collected with sodium cyanide. Evidence and data used in these attacks often are out-dated or simply incorrect.

It’s time the industry stood up for itself, not just by refuting accusations with good science, but by proactively showing the world the true face of the industry. In fact, the U.K.’s Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association (OATA) did this in a well-researched report “Wild caught ornamental fish—the trade, the benefits, the facts,” which knocks the whole issue into perspective.

For example, did you know that the total volume of marine fish caught for home aquaria represents, at most, a mere 0.0001 percent of the fish harvested from the sea for human consumption and other purposes? Further, large numbers of food and other fish are thrown back as unwanted bycatch, thus wasting vast amounts of a potentially valuable resource.

The report resulted from a one-year review program by David Roberts, Ph.D., and Ian Watson of the U.K.’s Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) of the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent, with additional input from OATA. As part of the university’s anthropological arm, the DICE researchers were placed ideally to look at the economic, social and environmental benefits that wild-caught fish can bring to the indigenous communities that exploit this resource, as revealed in their report.

John Dawes

Hand collecting by a piabeiro in a Rio Negro tributary

Note that the document does not set out to present a pristine industry. However, as retiring OATA chief executive Keith Davenport points out: “Animal welfare and sustainability are important, and where poor practice is found, we need to address this. We should also acknowledge that the people involved in catching these fish are also important, and we mustn’t lose sight of that.”
Davenport added that collecting fish ethically and sustainably offers a good incentive for communities “to conserve the local environment by providing people with a sustainable livelihood,” and that “This industry can also play its part in meeting the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development goals. It provides livelihoods to sustainable artisanal fisheries and, thus, avoids poverty by providing income from exports and income to feed, clothe and provide education for families, and it can help to avoid climate change by maintaining pristine rainforests and the carbon fixed in them.”

Remove this source of income, and what are the alternatives? Deforestation with its inevitable accompanying contribution to climate change? Gold mining? Cattle ranching? Urban migration?
Space dictates that I can’t review the OATA document in full detail here. Nonetheless, I can highlight some of its important findings.

Key points from the OATA document include:
• Collecting fish for home aquaria provides vital livelihoods for tens of thousands of collectors and communities in remote areas where other sources of income are limited or nonexistent.
• It inspires local communities to maintain/conserve their local resources.
• The source country also benefits through the revenue generated, along with the technological and information-based benefits the activity generates.
• Hobbyists know about habitats and the need to protect them, thus empathizing with activities that achieve this.
• The wild-caught sector is a targeted one, which results in virtually no bycatch.
• Fish are collected with the sole aim of keeping them alive, often for longer periods than they live in the wild.
• The wild-caught sector is low volume and high value, and it places limited demand on resources.

The report also describes the fish collection methods, the route followed from the wild to the home aquarium, the legislation that exists to ensure that legal protection is offered to fish en route to the consumer, and more. It highlights the fact that more than 99 percent of all ornamental fish exported to the U.K. survive the journey—likely a better survival rate than experienced by fish in the wild!
Two case studies are cited in detail to show what actually is involved in practice: the Rio Negro fishery based around Barcelos under the stewardship of nonprofit Project Piaba, and the Bali fishery under the stewardship of The Indonesian Nature Foundation.


Further Reading

To read the full text of "Wild-Caught Ornamental Fish – The Trade, the Benefits, the Facts, visit http://www.ornamentalfish.org/wild-caught-fish. Also check out the extremely detailed and valuable literature review from the Durrell Institute via the click-on facility at the bottom of the main page on the OATA website which is opened by link.

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