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

Eric Borneman eborneman at uh.edu
Sat Apr 10 09:59:13 EDT 2004

I'm afraid this is a very difficult problem, since the number of 
aquarium keepers is very large and education about something like 
non-native species is hard at this point. This is especially true given 
the number of young aquarists, coupled with uncaring and/or unknowing 

If I had a dollar for every email or post I have fielded over the years 
from aquarists who had already released or had plans to release 
aquarium fish and invertebrates into the wild, I could probably 
contribute a sizable donation to fixing this problem.  Most of them, to 
be honest, had come from younger aquarists who either no longer were 
able to keep their tanks running (moving off to college, made to give 
up their tanks), or those who learned after purchasing an animal that 
the chances of that particular organism's survival was very low in 
captivity. A planned trip to the beach or living near coastal areas 
makes such "Free Willy" releases all the more common.

As an example, a 12 year old aquarist wrote to me after buying a 
crinoid (Indo-Pacific origin) - a group with extremely low survival in 
aquaria. He read later that they eventually died, and asked me how he 
could make it live.  I told him (like so many others) he probably 
couldn't, and to refrain from purchasing them in the future, and to 
also tell the store owner not to purchase them for that reason.  He 
wrote back to me and said his parents were planning a trip to the beach 
and he was going to release back into the ocean.  I quickly responded 
telling him why he couldn't do this and fortunately, he listened and 
just returned it to the store.  Equally fortunate was that the store 
actually accepted the return (though too many customers always want 
credit or a refund - something store owners are not often likely to do 
and especially with organisms sold that are known by the store to have 
a dismal survival record).

There have been heated threads that span many pages on various internet 
forums among aquarists who protest the notion that release into waters 
is bad if the animal came from that particular ocean. I have been 
called to respond to such threads on many occasions, explaining how it 
didn't matter if it was the same ocean, or even the same reef, 
especially since many aquarists keep mixed-ocean displays. Some 
internet threads in the hobby have even argued that the introduction of 
Caulerpa from tanks is not harmful to ecosystems and may actually be 
beneficial, with various thread participants citing studies and 
refuting others to confirm their view.

Now, I don't think one should necessarily expect the lay public to 
understand such advanced topics of ecology and the nature of endemism, 
non-native introductions, and epizootiology.  Therefore, it really is 
up to education, probably easiest among new aquarists without much 
knowledge who are in my mind the most likely source of such 
indiscretions,  at the point of sale. Signs in stores, little bits of 
text added to the omnipresent "livestock guarantee and/or return policy 
or acclimation instructions" that get put into the bag at many fish 
stores, an outreach program for store owners, etc. could all be 
possible partial solutions.

Unfortunately, most (but not all) stores, in my experience, have pretty 
low ethics or knowledge in terms of the treatment of their livestock, 
or concern of much more than the immediate sale of the livestock.  Four 
years ago, I presented a list of unsuitable species in the aquarium 
trade at 9ICRS Bali. Similar information has been disseminated by 
leaders in this area many times over a time frame over ten years now. 
There has been little to no change that I can see in terms of the 
import of these species into stores. Although more focus is thankfully 
now being given to aspects of the aquarium trade, little change is 
occurring and profit remains the overriding influence from collection 
to retail.

The real changes that I can see are in the overall level of knowledge 
at the consumer level. The issue of release is also at the consumer 
level.  Aquarists, for the most part, have a financial interest and an 
emotional vested interest in the proper care of their livestock.  For 
the most part, if given an opportunity or the information, they will do 
the right thing (in contrast to many businesses where profit may be the 
overriding factor).  Supply-side action for unsuitable species and 
demand-side education for the remainder, though not a perfect solution, 
seems to me given my experience with such issues to be the most 
practical and effective way to reduce (though not eliminate) such 

For however much it helps, I will be writing another article on this 
issue for the aquarium publications. It has been addressed by others, 
and even specifically the Nemo issue, in print and electronic forums 
many times and many places since the movie came out.


Eric Borneman

Department of Biology
University of Houston
Science and Research Bldg II
4800 Calhoun Rd.
Houston TX 77204

On Apr 9, 2004, at 8:21 AM, divergurl101 wrote:

> 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
> Pattengill-Semmens
> 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)
> www.reef.org
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