Frequently aquaculture is put forward as a panacea for many of the challenges the marine aquarium trade faces. Advances in aquaculture make the covers of aquarium hobby publications, go viral on social media, and are frequently cited by home aquarists and those in trade as proof the trade is more sustainable than critics say it is. While advances in aquaculture are exciting and certainly newsworthy, if one looks at the data, it’s clear marine ornamental aquaculture falls short on the oft-implied promise of making the trade more sustainable. Aquaculture is an important aspect of the trade and will, just like aquaculture of food fishes, play a critical role in the future of a sustainable trade, but it is not the short-term solution to the greatest challenges the marine aquarium trade faces today.
The primary reason ornamental aquaculture is not as powerful a force for trade sustainability as many suggest is because the marine aquarium trade is a trade based predominantly on wild fishes. Somewhere between 14 and 22.5 million marine aquarium fishes are traded each year based on the best available data, and most of those fishes are harvested from wild reefs. Of the roughly 2,300 species traded, only 12.5 to 15% have been cultured successfully at least once. In part, this is due to the challenges associated with pelagic spawners, but it’s also due to the fact that the marine aquarium trade relies heavily on high volume, low value fishes harvested from the wild.
The top 10 most imported fishes to the United States represent around 40% of imports. The vast majority of these fishes are harvested from reefs, and their average retail price is under $15 per fish. In fact, half of these fish are commonly available to aquarium hobbyists for under $7, with volume discounts on some bringing the price to as low as a couple dollars a fish. While 70% of these most popular fishes by volume have been aquacultured successfully at least once, only 15% are commonly available to home aquarists as aquacultured fishes. Why? The fact that it’s hard to find an aquacultured fish for under $17 retail—about 340% more than the price of the top imported wild harvest species—means that a profit-driven aquaculture industry simply can’t compete with most wild fishes at current pricing levels.
The result is that of the nearly 2,300 species of marine aquarium fishes traded, just 1% are commonly available to home aquarists as aquacultured specimens. If marine ornamental aquaculture were really about increasing the sustainability of the trade—if it were really about addressing the primary challenges the trade faces—that number would probably be higher, and the species mix would most certainly be different. It would, for example, probably include more species for which we know destructive fishing practices such as cyanide use are common. It would probably include more species that serve critical ecosystem functions on the reef. It would probably include more species about which there are localized overfishing concerns. It probably wouldn’t include another designer clownfish.
The biggest challenge to moving marine ornamental aquaculture toward a greater, more targeted species mix of fishes commonly available to aquarium hobbyists is not technology—it is inexpensive wild harvest fishes. Aquaculture technology is becoming better and more refined, and the trade will only continue to see more breakthroughs each year. For aquaculture to play a more significant role in trade sustainability, however—to more effectively address the immediate challenges the trade faces—breakthroughs are not enough. It’s going to take the support of organizations such as Rising Tide, which specifically supports aquaculture research targeting species that make the most sense from a sustainability standpoint. It’s going to take land grant and extension institutions like the University of Florida Tropical Aquaculture Lab that have close working relationships with commercial aquaculture. It’s going to take trade addressing the pricing structure of wild-harvest fishes, and it’s going to take home hobbyists willing to pay a price commensurate with what a fish (aquacultured or wild) is actually worth.
A more sustainable marine aquarium trade of the future will include far more diversity in aquacultured fishes complementing a broad offering of sustainably harvested wild fishes. This future trade will be data-rich and will be able to adapt based on data. It will be able to take pressure off some species through aquaculture, while promoting the sustainable harvest of others. It will be a trade that will provide economic incentive to fish sustainably and conserve coral reef habitat, while also providing robust, easy-to-keep cultured fishes for novice aquarists. It will be a trade in which fishers and fisher communities in source countries will benefit from staying connected to the resource, and those engaged in aquaculture will have the opportunity to pursue sustainable businesses based on a fairer price structure where they can compete with wild harvest fishes.
Rather than a continued race to the bottom, the marine aquarium trade could be a model of sustainable growth that challenges the oversimplified notion that economic gain only occurs when conservation objectives are subverted. “There is no contradiction between growth, development and being good stewards of the planet,” U.S. President Barack Obama said at the recent APEC CEO Summit in Manila. “The old rules are outdated—businesses can now do right and still hit their bottom lines.”
Better data, more well-managed sustainable aquarium fisheries and a greater diversity in marine ornamental aquaculture can create a trade which will be a model for the future rather than a relic stuck in the past.