Ornamental fish and invertebrates for home aquaria

by Dr Jack M James, Aquabiotegch Group, Malta

The trade in ornamental fish and invertebrates is a truly global industry, generating many millions of dollars, and touching the lives of a vast range of people. From artisanal fishermen in Indonesia, to importers and exporters in Singapore and Spain, farmers in the Czech Republic and Florida and ending with the home aquarist in any one of hundreds of countries worldwide, the appeal of ornamanetals is worldwide.
While freshwater ornamental fish are largely farmed, thereby providing a sustainable and renewable supply, marine species are largely wild caught, leading to a potential for species loss, ecological imbalance, and habitat degradation. As the ornamental industry provides livelihoods in many places where there are very few opportunities for employment, it is important that the industry is encouraged to grow, but it is essential that proper monitoring is in place to ensure that this growth is sustainable, in terms of individual species, population ecology, and habitat preservation.

Industry scale
Livengood and Chapman (2008) estimated that some 1539 species of marine and freshwater fish, 102 species of hard and soft coral and 293 species of invertebrates were traded globally. According to FAO statistics from 2004, as summarised by Ploeg (2004), between 1974 and 2004, the number of countries reporting ornamental fish exports rose from 28 to 146, and this number is expected to continue to rise.
It is expected that most of these are developing countries which see the export of ornamental fish as a means to increase employment and generate wealth. The worldwide value of exports in 2004 was reported to be US$251m, a rise of US$230m in the preceding 30 years at an average 14 percent per annum, with a retail value of approximately US$2.2bn.

A further FAO report in 2008 valued exports at US$278m in 2005 (Livengood and Chapman, 2008). At these rates, it could be estimated that global exports now value over US$600m, although the effects of the global economic slowdown are not yet known for the sector.
In terms of the division of these exports between regions and countries, 55 percent of the 2004 exports came from Asia, while 25 percent came from Europe, mainly the Czech Republic. Between 1974 and 2004, the number of countries importing ornamental species rose from 32 to 120, with a slight dip in the interim. The largest of the importers of ornamental fish was Europe with 51 percent (the UK alone imports 19 percent of this figure), and North America with 26 percent of the market share (the USA making up 87 percent of this, making the largest single country importer with nearly 23 percent of the global market share).
Of the exporting countries, the fastest growth was seen in Czech Republic and Spain, while drops were noted in exports from the USA, Germany and Hong Kong, presumably linked to reducing imports into Japan, an important destination for ornamentals from these countries.

Monitoring of the global trade
The effective monitoring of the global trade is essential in order to properly record and analyse the volumes of species traded, in particular those perceived as vulnerable or under threat, to prevent irreversible damage. Through monitoring, a balance can be achieved and maintained between the demand for ornamental species, the need for income and employment, and the ecological requirements of habitats and populations. This balance can then provide for a sustainable industry into the future, reducing the risk of catastrophic loss of habitat or ecological imbalance potentially leading to socioeconomic issues in less developed areas.
In 2000, in response to a need for better monitoring of marine ornamental trade, the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) and members of various aquarium trade associations began, in collaboration, to address this need and created the Global Marine Aquarium Database (GMAD).
Trade data has been obtained from wholesale exporters and importers of marine aquarium organisms and integrated into quantitative, species-specific information which has been made public.

Fifty-eight companies, approximately one-fifth of the wholesalers in business, and four government management authorities have provided data to GMAD. In August 2003 the dataset contained 102,928 trade records (7.7 million imported and 9.4 million exported animals) covering a total of 2,393 species of fish, corals and invertebrates and spanning the years 1988 to 2003. It was believed that this data permitted the most accurate quantitative estimates available of the size of the global trade in marine ornamental fish and corals, and the first ever estimates for invertebrates other than corals.
A consultation on the monitoring the industry conducted in 2008 carried out for the European Commission by UNEP and the WCMC stated that a properly monitored and sustainably managed industry can present a valuable opportunity for income generation and support to livelihoods, while also providing an alternative to environmentally destructive activities.
Not monitoring the trade could, on the other hand, lead to an over exploitation of resources, damaging the long term future potential of the industry. The consultation identified the six mechanisms for monitoring the trade at species level as:

  1. the monitoring activities put in place by certification schemes (e.g. Marine Aquarium Council – MAC)
  2. GMAD
  3. the statistics generated by Customs and FAO,
  4. CITES
  5. veterinary controls
  6. Annex D of the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations.

In analysing these monitoring options, they determined that certification schemes are desirable but provide only partial coverage, are expensive, some have been unsuccessful, and there is little evidence of consumer awareness.
GMAD, being voluntary, was found to not be comprehensive enough for monitoring trade for conservation purposes.
Information generated by customs and FAO lacks the detail in the information required for conservation purposes.
CITES is effective at targeted monitoring of individual species of interest, however the monetary cost of obtaining permits to trade can be prohibitive.
Veterinary controls, for example in the EU, record species level data which could be useful for conservation purposes; however, at the time of the report, this data was being not captured and so valuable information was not being aggregated in a standardised and accessible manner.
Finally, Annex D of the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations proved to be the most effective tool for monitoring for conservation purposes, providing species level data of unrestricted species, with no monetary cost to the importer, making it the only instrument that could, at the time of the report, provide comprehensive species level data on the international trade in species of conservation concern. However, there was a willingness for EC veterinary controls to be investigated as a further mechanism for monitoring the trade.
While concerns were raised regarding the fact that these controls will only accurately monitoring imports into the EU while global trade may be underestimated, the fact that there is a system in place which is effective at monitor the ornamental trade is encouraging. It is therefore imperative that monitoring systems which can act on a global scale and based on those identified as being effective are initiated in order to provide proper traceability and sustainable development of the industry going forward.

Sustainability of marine ornamental supply
Despite sometimes being accused of causing undue degradation of populations and habitats, the marine ornamental trade is a low volume, high value industry. In 2000, 1kg of aquarium fish from the Maldives was valued at almost US$500, whereas 1kg of reef fish harvested for food was worth only US$6. Furthermore, the live coral trade is estimated to be worth about US$7,000 per tonne, whereas the use of harvested coral for the production of limestone yields only about US$60 per tonne (Wabnitz et al, 2003). There is therefore a clear financial incentive to preserve the important marine habitats and populations which provide to the ornamental industry, such as coral reefs and mangroves.
It is clear from the information available that the potential is there for a sustainable and profitable industry, but from the case study of the GMAD, there are clearly still large gaps in the knowledge on, in particular, marine ornamental harvesting.
This creates a need for a two pronged approach to developing a sustainable marine ornamental industry – the first being improved monitoring as discussed previously, and the second being an effort to increase the number of species which are cultured for the industry. Only one-10 percent of marine ornamental fish and less than one percent of hard corals are cultured (Wabnitz et al, 2003), this is in contrast to over 90 percent of freshwater ornamental species. In order to increase the proportion of marine species cultured, simple and cost effective culture methods must be sought which enable poor communities which rely on harvesting to switch their efforts to culture, thereby moving towards a more sustainable industry while not neglecting the beneficial potential of the ornamental trade for these communities.
The responsible aquarist
An appreciation by the home aquarist is the first step to self-regulation in terms of promoting sustainably sourced or farmed animals over those known to come from unsustainable wild fisheries. For example, in some wild fisheries collectors may use highly toxic substances such as sodium cyanide in marine environments and rotenone in freshwater systems to incapacitate the fish prior to collection.
Such practices can have long term toxic effects on the species assemblage and the community as a whole. Losses post capture can also be very high, up to 80 percent for some tropical marine fish, while other species such as cardinal tetra can have mortality as low as six percent, and so proper species selection to reduce demand for livestock which do not travel well can have a beneficial impact.
Additionally, better guidelines for collection, transport, and storage can help to reduce mortality. Therefore the consumer can have a marked impact on enhancing the sustainability of the industry through being aware of and choosing the most sustainably sourced livestock available, while ensuring they are properly educated on the requirements of their chosen livestock, so reducing mortality at home.
To highlight the role that responsible and properly informed aquarists can play, trade data, correlated with aquarium suitability information, indicates that two species known not to acclimatise well to aquarium conditions are nonetheless very commonly traded. They are the bluestreak cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus: 87,000 individuals traded between 1997 and 2002) and the mandarin fish (Synchiropus splendidus: 11,000 live individuals exported to the EU in the same period).
Data further indicates that species characterised as ‘truly unsuitable’, mainly due to their restricted dietary requirements, such as the foureye butterflyfish (Chaetodon capistratus), the harlequin filefish (Oxymonacanthus longisrostris) and the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse (Labroides phtirophagus), are also commonly traded, albeit in lower numbers (Wabnitz et al, 2003). Demand for species such as these is presumably perpetuated by mortality in home aquaria due to the unsuitable conditions, and it is these kinds of practises which can be minimised or eradicated through responsible aquarium keeping.
The global ornamental trade is a strong and growing industry, and it benefits all walks of life through wealth generation and aesthetic enjoyment. It has the opportunity to become a unique example of an ecologically and financially sustainable and renewable industry, where wealth flows from some of the worlds richest economies to some of the very poorest communities around the world.
However, in order to do this, improved systems for monitoring the global trade must be sought and implemented, and aquarists must strive to be as well educated as possible on the source and care of their livestock. In this way, the inhabitants of our home aquaria can remain some of the world’s most popular companion animals, while remaining affordable and healthy, and above all without damaging their natural habitats and populations.    ■

Livengood, E. J., & Chapman, F. A. (2008). The Ornamental Fish Trade: An Introduction with Perspectives for Responsible Aquarium Fish Ownership. University of Florida IFAS Extension, (FA124). Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.
Ploeg, A. (2004). The Volume of the Ornamental Fish Trade. Ornamental Fish International. Ornamental Fish International.
Wabnitz, C., Taylor, M., Green, E. P., & Razak, T. (2003). From Ocean to Aquarium: the global trade in marine ornamental species. Cambridge: UNEP-WCMC.
UNEP-WCMC. (2008). Monitoring of International Trade in Ornamental Fish – Consultation Paper. Context.


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