Threats and opportunities in the booming marine aquaria trade

Posted: 3 October 2003

Over 20 million tropical fish, including 1471 species ranging from the sapphire devil to the copperhead butterflyfish, are being harvested annually to supply the booming marine aquarium trade in Europe and the United States, according a UN report.

cover
cover of unep report
Down load the report (pdf - 1 MB)

A further nine to 10 million animals, including molluscs, shrimps and anemones and involving some 500 species, are also being traded to supply tanks in homes, public aquaria and dentists' surgeries.

Up to 12 million stony corals are being harvested, transported and sold annually estimates the report, by the United Nations Environment Programme's World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).

Big business

From Ocean to Aquarium: The Global Trade in Marine Ornamentals reveals that the value of aquarium creatures in trade is worth between $200 to $330 million annually. The report comes in advance of the UK launch of the Disney blockbuster, 'Finding Nemo', which has already taken the United States by storm.

The film tells the trials and tribulations of a clown anemonefish, which along with the beautiful blue-green damselfish, tops the list as the most traded tropical fish.

In the report, Southeast Asia is shown to be the main source of the trade, but ornamental marine species are increasingly being taken from several island nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Most of the demand comes from the United States, Europe and to a lesser extend Japan.

"For the first time we have an accurate estimate of the number of fish, corals and other animals being taken from coral reefs and brought to public aquariums and fish tanks in homes across Europe and the USA," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director.

"The global trade in marine species on the one hand poses a significant risk to valuable ecosystems like coral reefs, but on the other has great potential as a source of desperately needed income for local fishing communities," Toepfer continued.

Wild catch

Unlike freshwater aquarium species, where 90 per cent of fish species are currently farmed, the great majority of marine aquariums are stocked from wild caught species. This activity, if not carried out in an appropriate manner, can cause irreversible damage to coral reefs.

"A minority of fishermen, in countries such as Indonesia, use sodium cyanide to capture fish, says Colette Wabnitz, one of the report's authors. "An almost lethal dose of the poison is squirted into the coral reef where fish shelter. It stuns the fish to allow capture and export, but can also kill coral and other species. The fish may survive the export process but usually die of liver failure soon after being purchased."

Coral reefs, the rainforests of the seas, are facing an increasing plethora of threats from pollution and sedimentation to coral bleaching, overfishing and tourism. Southeast Asian reefs are particularly at risk and it is therefore important that aquarium species' collection does not further compound these problems, say the report's authors.

Economic value

As well as the threats, the report also highlights the economic value presented by a well-managed aquarium marine trade.

According to Mark Collins, UNEP-WCMC Director, "If managed properly, the aquarium industry could support long-term conservation and sustainable use of coral reefs in regions where other options for generating revenue are limited. Some collection techniques have minimal impact on coral and the industry as a whole is of relatively low volume yet of very high value."

For example, Sri Lanka earns about US$ 5.6 million per year by exporting reef fish to around 52 countries. The report estimates that 50,000 people in the country are directly involved in the export of marine ornamentals, providing jobs in rural low-income coastal areas and a strong incentive to maintain fish stocks and reef environments in good condition.

To control over-exploitation and unsustainable fishing practices, the report recommends a certification scheme as well as quotas, catch size limits, the creation of marine reserves and permits. Date from the report largely comes from the Global Marine Aquarium Database (GMAD), which was developed in partnership with the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) to promote sustainable trade. The database contains more than 100,000 records from global aquarium import and export companies.

Source: UNEP News Release 2003/53

Read the report:

From Ocean to Aquarium: The Global Trade in Marine Ornamentals (pdf - 1 MB)