Who would have thought that a tank of tropical fish in your living room would affect what happens to a wild coral reef on the other side of the globe? Tom Lindenfeld, for one.
When Lindenfeld, a political consultant in Washington, D.C., needs a break from politics, he visits the coral reef in his living room. He’s one of a growing number of aquarists—or aquarium hobbyists—who doesn’t want to contribute to damaging the ocean habitat he loves. Unfortunately, unethical aquarium trade practices result in depleted wild populations because of marine organisms that are over-harvested or collected in damaging ways.
To ensure that fish and coral reached his own tank through ecologically responsible and “fish-friendly” methods, Lindenfeld called on Tom White, president of Custom Aquarium Concepts in Herndon, Virginia, an ethically run marine aquarium business. White helped Lindenfeld and his family install a saltwater aquarium inhabited by dozens of colorful fish, starfish, shrimp, and corals. Since they got their first tank, he and his seven-year-old son, Sammy, have learned a great deal about various marine life as well as how to monitor and maintain proper water quality. Lindenfeld believes that as children discover aquatic ecosystems, they gain an understanding of how human actions affect global biodiversity.
Reefs at Risk
Lindenfeld isn’t alone in his interest in keeping a home marine aquarium. The pastime has become popular in recent years—especially in the United States, home to about two-thirds of the estimated 1.5 million saltwater hobbyists worldwide. The United States imports nearly half of the total global trade in aquarium fishes. It’s estimated that coral trade has increased 12 percent to 30 percent annually since 1990, with most destined for this country.
This burgeoning hobby, which has escalated since the release of the Disney fish flick Finding Nemo, can lead to unsustainable harvest of coral and other reef inhabitants, primarily in Indonesia and the Philippines. At one point, an estimated 50 to 60 percent of fish from the Philippines and 90 percent of Indonesian species imported into the United States were reportedly captured using poisonous chemicals. Although illegal in most countries, the use of cyanide to capture coral reef fish is widespread, reports the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. Cyanide is used to stun hard-to-catch reef fish that seek cover among coral and in rocky crevices. The poison damages the animals’ internal organs so that a large percentage of the fish die immediately or shortly after collection. Furthermore, cyanide kills many non-targeted species, including entire sections of coral, a living organism.
Many fish also die during transport across the globe from stress caused by rough handling or improper packing methods, which can result in severe temperature changes and lack of oxygen. Still others die from lack of proper care at pet stores or in home aquaria.
For aquarium dealer Tom White, this way of doing business is unacceptable. Years ago, he had a part-time job in the saltwater department of a local pet shop, where he saw animals mistreated and neglected. So he started an environmentally responsible business that strives to sell fish that are sustainably harvested. He won’t sell animals that are unlikely to survive in captivity or that demand a level of special care that clients can’t provide. White works closely with clients to help set up an aquarium system suited for their level of interest and expertise.
The good news for aquarists who want to do the right thing is that they can join the efforts of the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC), a network that encourages and assists the aquarium trade to adopt standards and obtain certification to ensure the marine aquarium trade is sustainable, reefs are responsibly managed, and the hobby supports good collection, husbandry, and handling practices. More than 5,000 aquarists, industry operators, conservationists, and researchers in sixty countries are involved with the network.
MAC’s certification standards require that fish, coral, and other marine organisms follow a closely supervised path from trained collectors operating in certified collection areas to certified export-import, wholesale, and retail facilities. The entire process is monitored to protect the long-term sustainability of the natural ecosystems from which the fish and coral are taken as well as the health of the creatures sold. “MAC Certification will put an end to destructive collecting practices, ensure sustainable livelihoods for responsible collectors, and conserve our fragile marine environment,” says MAC executive director Paul Holthus. Currently, MAC Certified companies are found in Canada, Fiji, France, the Netherlands, Philippines, United Kingdom, and the United States. More than 100 companies in 20 countries, including businesses that together import more than 50 percent of marine aquarium animals into the United States, have publicly stated they wish to become MAC certified.
Advocates of the certification system say it will help local collectors preserve and share the ocean’s beautiful living organisms without over-harvesting or destroying reefs. “An ethically structured aquarium industry provides financial incentive for villages to protect their local reefs,” says Sylvia Spalding, MAC’s communications director. Some Pacific villagers dredge up or dynamite coral to sell for building blocks, landfill, or crushed (as lime) for construction mortar, she explains. Carefully harvested coral and hand-netted ornamental fish demand higher prices than lime sales and can provide a long-term financial return if communities sustainably manage reef ecosystems. Part of MAC’s emphasis is to ensure fishermen establish “no-take” zones where wild populations are allowed to replenish themselves.
However, it takes time, communication, and international cooperation to make changes, White points out. “We’ve all got to support efforts to ensure the business is sustainable for the future,” he says. “It’s what’s right for the environment and our own livelihood.”
Do the right thing