[Coral-List] Freeing Nemo: Aquarium owners releasing non-native fish could endanger marine ecosystems

divergurl101 divergurl101 at bellsouth.net
Fri Apr 9 09:21:58 EDT 2004

As someone who works part time in an aquarium store again, I find this
post particularly disturbing.  I make it a priority to match my
customers with fish that are compatible with what they already have in
their aquarium and that the aquarium(s) they have can house the fish
they want.  The Nemo movie has been devastating and/or great for the
aquarium trade, depending on which side of the issue you stand on.  I
personally find it devastating to the marine ecosystem, but my boss has
been making a lot of money from the customers that want a "Nemo" tank.
(In our defense, we do not import the moorish idol as its captive
survival rate stinks.) As an individual that has been keeping and
researching marine/reef tanks for many years now and is a marine science
major, I talk customers out of buying specific fish or even starting
saltwater aquariums all the time.  There are just some people that
should not take on the responsibilities of maintaining a marine aquarium
and this post proves why.

It has been known for quite some time that non-native fish are living in
Florida coastal waters.  There was a big article in Jacksonville's The
Florida Times Union a few years ago detailing lion fish populations off
the coast of Jacksonville.  They are reproducing.  Believe it or not, my
boss was actually the one that pointed the article out to me and we made
it a point from then on to inform our customers to not release these
fish (any fish, not just the non-native varieties) into our waters.  It
is very easy to assume that people know this and the detrimental effects
this can have on our environment, but our customers ask about it all the
time.  In example, "Sir, you really can't put that miniatus grouper in
your 35 gallon tank with your powder blue tang.  The grouper will ruin
your water quality in that small environment and the powder blues are
extremely susceptible to poor water quality and the grouper will outgrow
your tank in a matter of weeks."  "Oh, that's ok.  When he gets too big,
I will just take him to the beach and let him go."  I hear it all the
time.  Rest assured, I talk these customers out of buying the fish and
educate them about letting these fish go in our waters.  With the
brightly colored fish, it isn't hard to convince the customer that the
fish will get eaten before it makes it off our beach because of
camouflage and I am also able to reason that the fish will be "sad"
because it will be all alone with no one to mate with.  The customers
may not want to maintain responsibility for the fish, but they do care
about what will happen to the fish once they don't have it anymore.  The
fish's physical and emotional well being usually appeals to the customer
in this case.

None of this, however, would be an issue if the Florida Fish and
Wildlife Conservation Commission hadn't had made it illegal for us to
take some of these fish back when the customer didn't want them anymore.
We get requests all the time from customers that want to "get rid of" a
fish that has gotten too big, a fish that is beating everyone else up,
etc... While it is illegal for us to take any fish without serious
pentalty from the FFWCC, we do it anyway with the salt water fish
especially, and the fresh water fish that can readily reproduce and do
damage to our environment.  (I don't claim to know everything about
fish, especially the fresh water South American varieties, so this can
be difficult.)  To my boss' credit, he is really trying to balance
responsibility to the environment with his goal of making money.
Christy's post has brought up an issue I feel needs attention from the
state of Florida.  If we are allowed to import these fish from all over
the world, why should we not be able to take them back when a customer
doesn't want them anymore for whatever reasons; especially if it is
going to keep these non-native species out of Florida's waters (as well
as provide an opportunity to resell a fish that is already in captivity
vs. selling a fish that has been taken off a reef somewhere).  Isn't
that the goal of the FFWCC's regulation over the fish retailers anyway?
To keep track of and regulate the non-native fish coming into the U.S.
in order to 'prevent' non-native releases?

I am only one person and can educate only so many people.  Perhaps that
is the reason I stay at this part time job.  There are just too many
laymen out there that don't know any better.  There is obviously a
breakdown in the system and it needs changing since there is such a
problem with non-native species ending up on our reef systems.  If the
lion fish are being found on our reefs, natural and artificial, from the
Keys to New York, there is obviously a problem.  How do we solve it?

Patricia Hunt

-----Original Message-----
From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
[mailto:coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of Christy
Sent: Thursday, April 08, 2004 8:06 PM
To: coral-list
Subject: [Coral-List] Freeing Nemo: Aquarium owners releasing non-native
fish could endanger marine ecosystems

> http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2004-04/uow-fna040704.php
> Contact: Sandra Hines shines at u.washington.edu 
> <mailto:shines at u.washington.edu>
> 206-543-2580
> University of Washington <http://www.washington.edu/>
>   Freeing Nemo: Aquarium owners releasing non-native fish could
>   endanger marine ecosystems
> Flushing your pet tropical fish to set it free is a bad idea. So is
> releasing it at the beach. Intentional and unintentional aquarium 
> releases have been a leading cause of freshwater fish invasions, but 
> now researchers from the University of Washington and the Reef 
> Environmental Education Foundation have found 16 non-native species of

> fish - apparently set free from home aquariums - in ocean waters off 
> the southeast coast of Florida.
> This is an unprecedented number of non-native marine fish in a
> concentrated geographic area, says Brice Semmens, a UW doctoral 
> student in biology and lead author of a paper published in the journal

> Marine Ecology Progress Series.
> Using data on the aquarium trade and shipping traffic, the study is
> the first to convincingly demonstrate that well-meaning pet owners can

> cause a "hot spot" of non-native tropical marine fish, Semmens says. 
> The 16 species were found in 32 different locales along the coast of 
> Broward and Palm Beach counties and in the upper Florida Keys. Some 
> were in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
> Most of the species were seen at more than one place meaning more than
> just a few aquariums have been dumped, Semmens says. It is not clear 
> which, if any, of the non-natives have established breeding 
> populations, he said.
> The more times a species is released, however, the greater the chance
> of establishment, says Walt Courtenay, fisheries biologist with the 
> U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville, Fla., who is known around the 
> world for his expertise on exotic fishes. He is not a co-author of the

> published paper.
> "Typically, I'd say aquarium owners are more concerned with the status
> of our marine ecosystems than the general public is, yet many appear 
> unaware of the potential pitfalls of releasing pets into the wild," 
> Semmens says.
> The study relied on information submitted by volunteer divers and
> snorkelers through the Exotic Species Sighting Program of the Reef 
> Environmental Education Foundation, or REEF, based in Key Largo, Fla. 
> Sightings were confirmed with photographs, video or corroboration by 
> other divers.
> The introduced species are native to the tropical western Pacific
> and/or Red Sea. Emperor angelfish, with their blue masks and bodies 
> striped in blue and gold, were the most commonly sighted non-native 
> species and are imported by the aquarium industry in relatively large 
> numbers. Indeed, the researchers found a compelling correlation 
> between how commonly ornamental marine species are imported and how 
> often they were sighted. Another commonly sighted non-native was 
> yellow tang, a bright yellow oval fish that is the most commonly 
> imported species of the U.S. aquarium trade.
> In contrast, Semmens says it is unlikely the exotics arrived in the
> ballast water of ships. If the fish were being introduced through ship

> ballast, one would expect the native ranges of the fish to correlate 
> to where the ballast water comes from. Analyzing data on shipping 
> traffic to Florida ports, Semmens and his co-authors found no support 
> for this correlation.
> While only a small number of introduced species might have devastating
> impacts, scientists are unable to predict which species will be 
> destructive. The largest set of intentionally released marine fish was

> carried out in temperate coastal and inland seas of Russia in the 20th

> century. Sixteen species became established, with ecologically and 
> economically devastating results, including harm to valuable 
> fisheries, parasite introductions and the endangerment and extinction 
> of native species.
> "Releasing non-native reef fish is like playing Russian roulette with
> tropical marine ecosystems," Semmens says. Then, too, even if 
> introduced species do not have dramatic impacts, their presence is 
> unnatural and unwanted.
> "Divers visit the reefs of Florida to see the region's natural beauty
> and diversity. It is a unique and magical experience to dive on these 
> reefs. Adding new species to the region is comparable to adding a few 
> finishing touches to one of da Vinci's masterpieces."
> Co-authors of the paper are Eric Buhle and Anne Salomon, both UW
> doctoral students in biology, and Christy Pattengill-Semmens, science 
> coordinator for the Reef Environmental Education Foundation.
> Aquarium keepers need to be educated about the proper disposition of
> animals in their care, according to Paul Holthus, executive director 
> and president of the Marine Aquarium Council, an international 
> non-profit organization based in Honolulu that focuses on the way 
> tropical fish are collected and handled before they are purchased.
> "While it is against the law to release non-native marine fish into
> coastal waters, it's a problem that can't easily be policed," Semmens 
> says. The authors say that education programs for dealers and 
> aquarists could curtail exotic species introductions if implemented 
> properly. Such programs would need to highlight the problems of 
> introduced species and provide ways for aquarium owners to sell or 
> trade unwanted fish.
> ###
> - For more information: Semmens, 206-529-1240,
> semmens at u.washington.edu <mailto:semmens at u.washington.edu>
> - "A Hotspot of Non-native Marine Fishes: Evidence for the Aquarium 
> Trade as an Invasion Pathway," Marine Ecology Progress Series, vol. 
> 266, Jan. 30, 2004
> - Reef Environmental Education Foundation's Exotic Species Sighting 
> Program, http://www.reef.org/exotic/
> - Holthus, 808-550-8217, paul.holthus at aquariumcouncil.org 
> <mailto:paul.holthus at aquariumcouncil.org>, Marine Aquarium Council, 
> see http://www.aquariumcouncil.org/

Christy Pattengill-Semmens, Ph.D.
Scientific Coordinator
Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF)

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