divers and fish

John McManus jmcmanus at rsmas.miami.edu
Fri Nov 2 11:55:05 EST 2001

The aquarium trade presents some interesting dilemmas.

In many places, it used to be that people who fished reefs for food were
performing a public service of extreme importance, supplying markets and
their families with protein for local consumption. Then we learned
increasingly of fishers who could not afford to eat much of the fish they
caught -- the fishing was to raise the money to buy more important staples
such as rice. Then in many areas, mass culture of chicken brought its cost
down below that of fish, and this reinforced the idea that the greatest
importance of fishing on a reef was to keep people from dire levels of

All this, of course, varies from place to place, and there are still areas,
especially in the central Pacific, where fishing is the primary low-cost way
of feeding one's family and neighbors.

Elsewhere, however, the aquarium trade often offers a higher return per
effort than food fishing. And, we rarely get the massive local reductions
and local extinctions associated with high levels of food fishing, provided
cyanide has been removed from the equation. Certainly, the volume of fish
caught for the aquarium trade is very tiny compared to that associated with
food fishing. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to find a trade like
aquarium fishing that provides a successful alternative livelihood in a
remote community.

However, that leaves the very serious concern about exotic introductions.
Recent history is filled with examples of exotic species radically altering
ecosystems. Freshwater aquarists have often been involved starting
devastating species takeovers in tropical freshwater systems, adding (along
with the far worse problems of irresponsible aquaculture, short-sighted
deliberate introductions and environmental damage) to what is probably the
greatest mass extinction of vertebrates on Earth in recent history. In the
marine environment, it is not at all unusual to hear about, say, a Pacific
Lionfish living in Biscayne Bay. I think that it is a matter of time before
we see some truly devastating marine introductions from aquarists (assuming
that it has not happened already, say with coral disease). Of course,
mariculture of aquarium fish would not reduce this problem.

So, while the aquarium trade makes a great deal of sense as a source of
livelihood in many cases, I think that the greatest danger lies in exotic
introductions. I'm not sure of the solution, other than perhaps restricting
fish distributions to within their natural range. However, there are many
aspects of theaquarium industry that are good for society, such as
maintaining public awareness, and it would be good to seek some solutions.




John W. McManus, PhD
Director, National Center for Caribbean Coral Reef Research (NCORE)
Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (RSMAS)
University of Miami, 4600 Rickenbacker Causeway
Miami, Florida 33149.
jmcmanus at rsmas.miami.edu
Tel. (305) 361-4814
Fax (305) 361-4600

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