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/The Five Critical Elements of Business 

Marine Life Use in the Aquarium Hobby


by Bob Fenner

The public's exposure to the living world

The ornamental aquatic industry relies on collection by intrepid divers for the vast majority of it's livestock; fishes, corals, crabs, snails, algae, "live-rock" and more are all gathered from the wild. Less than one percent of the total number of marine organisms so utilized are "tank-raised" (see table) mainly a handful of species of clown-anemone fishes, neon "cleaner" gobies, and a hodge-podge of non-fishes.

Cultured Organisms Regularly Offered in The Aquatic Pet Trade

Examples of Fishes/Non-Fishes




Tomato Clownfish, Amphiprion frenatus 

Giant Clams, Tridacna crocea.

Clarkii Clowns, Amphiprion clarkii 




Pacific Abalones, Haliotis spp.

Percula Clowns, A. ocellaris 

"Cultured Live Rock"

Algae, Gracilaria, Ulva

Neon Gobies, Gobiosoma oceanops

Other species have been bred and reared in captivity; none have met with commercial success.


Where do they all come from...? (For various reasons; lack of licensing, other documentation for foreign countries, diffuseness, unsophistication of the pet industry, and commercial secrecy, real "hard" numbers are unavailable re the origins and destination of wild-caught marine pet-"fish". Through many years "in the trade" in the U.S. and abroad, personal communications, and "reading between the lines" my conjecture is that) Most marine livestock originates in two places, the Philippine Islands (@65%) and Indonesia (@20%), with most of the rest hailing from Florida/Caribbean, Hawaii and Australia, and to a much lesser extent Guam, Tonga, Marshall Islands, Costa Rica and others. Note this list is for the mid-1990's and is for the countries/areas of origination, not intermediaries (e.g. transhippers).

And where do they all go? About half of these organisms are destined for the United States pet trade, with more than half of the rest going to wholesalers in Western Europe and Japan.

(It is my estimate that even given sustainable (hand-netting with or without pokers, barrier nets, traps...) collection practices, less than half of collected organisms live to be shipped from their mother-lands. Of those still living, an average fifth are lost in transit to the consignee, another fifth are lost within forty-eight hours of arrival, with a further two-fifth's dying within a month. Yes, this leaves some ten percent of what was originally caught or approximately a fifth of those shipped. Virtually none (<1%) live more than a year in captivity.

Are these losses excessive? Economically no. The wet-pet livestock industry in the U.S. last year generated retail sales of about six hundred million dollars, of which seventeen percent were marine (International Marine Life Alliance Canada News Release). Most retailers hope to break even on sales of marine-life itself; the livestock are necessary though to drive purchases of lucrative dry-goods.

The moral question of whether the capture and keeping of marines is ethical is one we must ask ourselves or stand-by and let governments decide for us.

What is the impact on wild stocks and the environments they inhabit from such collecting? Does the gathering of marine fishes, invertebrates, rock and algae for ornamental purposes have decided long-term deleterious effects? Do the methods used and extent of harvesting call for licensing or outright bans?

Let us try to understand this source of mortality in the context of natural and human involvement.

Several hundred thousand individual marine organisms and a few hundred tons of "live rock" are extracted from the oceans each year for the pet trade. Most are gathered via sustainable methods utilizing various types of nets and traps. Though there are allegations of other nefarious techniques, little or no substantial evidence exists as to their extensive use. Dynamite and other explosives use are relegated to destructive food-fishing. Most types of poisoning as well, except for one celebrated sore eye for the trade, the use of cyanide. Still used in the Philippine Islands and cropping up in other places and times in the Indo-Pacific it's use is being curtailed and deserves it's own article.

I will argue that the manner that most marine fishes are collected and their numbers are of small consequence to the reefs and other habitats. The weight of my opinion rests with the high recruitment and replacement potential for these organisms. As habitat-centric terrestrials our frame of reference are frequently trees, birds and mammals. Primary and subsequent production are far more robust in coastal marine environs. As an example, removing ninety percent of the biomass in a forest and we appreciate a loss of abundance and diversity measured in years. Aquatic environments react and replenish much more quickly, being difficult to discern disruption in only a few months.

Clumsy, slow humans probably represent an insignificant percentage of mortality for these stocks compared with "natural" sources such as currents, storms, predation, starvation, competition for habitat...

I would be remiss for not mentioning that there are organisms that should spared removal or at least be limited in their taking. Such are fishes that fare poorly in captivity; many coral-eating butterflyfishes, ribbon moray eels, Moorish idols; and many of the sedentary invertebrates; stony corals, large anemones, giant clams, sponges and others that have long generation times, slow growth rates and replacement potential and small chance of life in captivity. To the hobby and industries' credit, many authors attempt to identify and urge consumers to shy away from these touchy species.

Other Sources of Mortality:

In any fair discussion of a subject there is a need to identify other contributing influences. In this case, alternate uses and causes of loss of life.

Wouldn't it be great to elucidate all the inputs and outputs of "natural" causes in a model of recruitment and loss in these habitats? Let's focus on those of solely human origin:

Development: has proven historically to be a huge negative influence. Unconscientious grading and drainage alone have smothered vast coastal marine areas, ostensibly wiping out all macro-life diversity for long periods of time.

Food-Gathering: with modern gear and techniques have had

documented disastrous results; e.g. the North Pacific sardine fishery, and diminishing mesh size on gill nets in Africa's great lakes. Modern technology must be matched with prudence to obtain and maintain optimum sustainable yields.

Military: At present humans collectively expend about a quarter of their countries Gross Domestic Products on "defense". The United States stated military budget is some two hundred eighty nine (289) billion dollars in 1993 (Business Week Feb. 14, 1994, p.8), more than the next ten countries outlays combined. Much of the consequent materials, waste oil, diesel, nuclear, aircraft fuel, CFC's... ends up in marine environments. Why are we allocating so much resource to killing each other and the planet?

Tourism: Eco- or otherwise plays havoc with the same niches; amateur divers, fishers, their boats' anchors, fuel and noise, the "business of life" which is human consumption, all contribute to wear and tear of natural resources.

These sources of mortality are exceedingly more detrimental and indiscriminate than collecting "pet-fish". So all this being said and written; even though the collection, transport and keeping of captive marine organisms apparently accounts for comparatively minuscule loss of life and habitat damage, why the current interest in regulating such trade? Maybe it's a possible new source of "revenue enhancement" (i.e. tax), perhaps a bureaucratic job scramble, maybe a smoke-screen? How are you going to generate funds from individuals and groups without such sensationalism? How much money are you going to make attacking the tourist industries or government sources of waste and inefficiency? But back to the central issue, is marine pet-fishing worth the cost to the environment?

Final Opinion:

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