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International Waters: First-Ever Study of U.S. Marine Fish Imports Published

Posted: July 25, 2012, 5:45 p.m., EDT

PLoS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed, open-access, online publication, is becoming an important outlet for the rapid publication of papers relating to all manner of research studies. The most recent paper regarding the ornamental aquatic industry (see the reference below) reveals, “the appetite of the marine aquarium fish trade” by presenting data relating to “the volume and biodiversity of fish imported into the United States.”

Since this feature was published on the very same day I am writing this item, it’s far too early to say how the ornamental aquatic industry in general, and the U.S. industry in particular, will react to the findings. At the very least, they will find some of the data extremely interesting and valuable, albeit with regard just to the U.S.

Damsels and clownfish are, by far, the top species of tropical marine fish imported into the U.S.
Damsels and clownfish are, by far, the top species of tropical marine fish imported into the U.S. Photo by John Dawes
To the best of my knowledge, no equivalent study on a wider scale for other important importing countries or regions has been carried out. Whether this particular study acts as a launch pad for similar studies remains to be seen.

The paper based its conclusions on data obtained by examining “an entire year of import records of marine tropical fish entering the United States” in detail, which included a comparison between commercial invoices and government importation forms. More than half of the latter were found to contain “numerical or other reporting discrepancies,” resulting in an overestimation of 27 percent of trade volumes.

Even so, it was possible to draw several valuable conclusions. For instance, we are told that in the period from 2004 to 2005, the U.S. imported “more than 11 million fish…from 40 countries.” While this may sound like a very high figure, it actually represents, as mentioned above, a considerably lower quantity (27 percent) than previously erroneously reported. In contrast, 1,802 species were imported during the same period, representing “22 percent greater biodiversity than previously estimated.”

The increase in biodiversity is explained at least in part by the demand for a wider range of organisms for home aquaria, which is associated with a shift from fish-only setups to reef aquaria, advances in technology and improved husbandry skills and techniques. The 27 percent drop in total numbers is largely believed to be the result of mislabeling, where shipments tagged as containing marine fish actually contained “freshwater fish, corals, and/or other wildlife products.”

In closing, the authors ask: “…is the ornamental fish trade a priority issue for coral reef conservation?” Their answer: “While it is certainly possible that the direct take of coral reef fishes could in many instances (e.g., P. kauderni) pose a risk to their survival in the wild, this does not seem a major consideration in the face of much larger stressors where influences are not in doubt.”

While believing that “the wildlife trade may put additional stress on coral reefs,” the authors also state that “specimen collection for the aquarium trade could increase the value of source habitats to local economies and thus incentivize conservation. This value-added benefit could also elevate awareness, appreciation and education of the existence and plight of coral reefs and the inhabitants internationally, thus improving sustainability in the aquarium trade at both the source and consumer ends.”

This study presents data not collated before and does so in an accessible, easy-to-assimilate manner. It would have helped even further if the year that formed the focus of the study had been a more recent one. We are now some seven years farther down the road and deep into a global economic crisis. It would also have been interesting if the authors had been able to evaluate their data against the Food and Agriculture Organization’s statistics for the ornamental fish industry.

However, to do this, much extrapolation would be required, since the U.S. statistics submitted to the FAO only refer to value of imports ($46,051,000 for 2005), with a figure of 0 (zero!) entered for quantity (specified as tonnes for other countries)…and do not differentiate between freshwater and marine fish.

Andrew L. Rhyne, Michael F. Tlusty, Pamela J. Schofield, Les Kaufman, James A. Morris Jr. and Andrew W. Bruckner. Revealing the Appetite of the Marine Aquarium Fish Trade: The Volume and Biodiversity of Fish Imported into the United States. PLoS ONE 7(5) May 2012: e35808. <HOME>

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