Aquarium trade main 145382485Tropical fish in plastic bags are on sale at a market in Hong Kong | Fedor Selivanov/Shutterstock

BITEBACK | The Deadly Trade In Reef Fish

The home marine aquarium trade is big business these days and yet it is virtually unregulated. John Nightingale reports on the devastating trade in reef fish 

It is estimated that between 25 and 30 million fish are taken from the world's coral reefs each year to supply hobby aquariums, often with disastrous consequences for the reef. 

Fish gatherers can decimate local populations, with whole species completely disappearing, leaving degraded reefs in their wake. The number of people with marine fish tanks at home is growing, there are more than 700,000 in the US alone, but it is the incredibly high mortality rate among the fish that are taken that necessitates so many being caught. Most start dying from the moment they are captured, and the losses continue during the time they are in the holding tanks, while in transit to Europe and the US and then when they are on sale in the aquarium shop. It's reckoned that 90 per cent of collected fish die before they even reach the hobbyist's tank. Sadly that high death rate continues even then as marine systems are very difficult to keep stable in a small tank. This then drives further demand as the dead
fish need to be replaced. 

The individual fish that are collected have little chance of survival but even more important is the effect that it has on the reef where the collection took place. Coral reefs worldwide are under pressure for many reasons but fish collection upsets the delicate balance within the reef ecosystem. Marine hobbyists demand particular species and they also want juveniles, so fish are taken before they've had a chance to breed. A coral reef habitat is a highly interconnected environment and so the removal of  an individual species can have a serious knock on effect for everything left behind. Various species of cleaner wrasse are in high demand but, without sufficient fish to clean, they can starve to death within a month. The fish left behind on the reef can find themselves with a parasite overload. A lot of herbivores, like the yellow and blue tangs, are popular for home tanks but if you remove all the grazers from a reef the algae starts to take over, with disastrous consequences for the corals.

yellowtang 237502393The the yellow tang is one of the most popular fish in the US aquarium market. In heavily fished areas their populations are down by 70 – 90%. | Mr Exen/Shutterstock

The same problem doesn't occur with freshwater aquariums. Nearly all the fish will be captive bred and it is much easier to create a healthy fresh water tank. Of the 1,800 species of reef fish involved in the trade, less than 5 per cent are bred in captivity, although buyers can sometimes be told a different story. Even providing exactly what the fish needs to eat can often be very hard. Butterfly fish are always in demand because they are so beautiful but many species need particular corals to feed on, and so are starve to death even if they do mange to reach a hobby tank alive.

There are better managed fish collection industries, such as in Hawaii, Australia and Fiji, although even there the trade still causes detrimental effects. There is an increasing amount of evidence emerging from Hawaii of serious under-reporting of catches and reefs left damaged by over-exploitation. When a list was made of the species of Hawaiian reef fish most in need of protection, nearly all of them were found to be targeted for ornamental collection. However countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, where 86 per cent of the fish going into the US trade originate from, are almost completely unregulated. For instance using cyanide to stun fish, and so make them easy to catch, is illegal in the Philippines and yet nearly 50 per cent of the fish coming from there show signs of cyanide treatment, which again increases the mortality rate.

There is an urgent need for the proper regulation of fish collecting on tropical reefs, and those regulations then need to be enforced. Species in need of protection need to be added to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) to prevent them being imported. However, the reality is that such regulations will take years to be put in place and enforcement in many countries will prove nearly impossible. Instead we need to appeal to those who are buying these fish to learn more about the damage their hobby is doing in the wild. If the demand continues to have such an adverse affect the world's reefs then we need to restrict marine fish keeping to captive bred specimens. Such an impetus would no doubt quickly increase the amount of captive breeding taking place. 

The Ornamental Aquatic Association have a website called 'hands off my hobby' ( where they tell us that 'ornamental fish-keeping brings a lot of pleasure to people, as well as social, economic and health benefits to the UK and beyond' but they choose not to publicise the trade behind this industry or the damage it does. However, pressure is growing to limit the trade in wild-caught animals, and that includes reef fish. Organisations such as the Born Free foundation campaign in the US ( and Europe ( to end the keeping of all wild caught animals such as orcas for the marine park industry and are fighting a similar campaign. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has also started a campaign called Operation Reef Defence ( to end the wild caught marine fish trade. In February the Scottish government announced a review of the exotic pet trade and pressure is building for a European wide investigation into it. With a new crop of MPs  in the UK it is a perfect time to request them to put pressure on for a review and contact your MEP, you can find them here


orca infographic WDC The Southern resident orca population has put in danger when SeaWorld started capturing orcas for their parks in the 60 and 70s. |  Whale and Dolphin Conservation




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