aquariums save reefs

Doug Fenner d.fenner at
Fri Dec 1 09:53:05 EST 2000

   Thanks for all the good points.  I think many people (myself included)
have been stimulated to work for reef conservation by keeping aquariums and
diving on reefs.  Further, I was reminded that on a recent visit to Hawaii,
we collected (under permit) several small pieces of a rare coral- I took
one little bit for taxonomic work, and 4 larger pieces went to Cindy
Hunter, who put them in tanks at the Waikiki aquarium, where all are
growing happily at present!  Good work!  Those who know what they're doing
can indeed help preserve reef species in aquariums.
   At the same time, those that don't know what they're doing, or don't
bother, are a net sink for reef organisms in their aquariums.  And they are
probably in the majority still.  Hopefully that will change.  But all the
good that aquariums do does not mean we should deny the reality that
aquarium shops still sell large amounts of wild-caught fish and corals to
people whose tanks are one way tickets.  Maybe we need actual statistics to
know if these people are the majority, but if the people who can propagate
corals and fish were numerous enough, most of the aquarium shops would no
longer have a market for fish and corals (or they'd be reselling what their
customers grew).  Fact is, their business continues undiminished.  Of
course, if the shops sold all tank raised or maricultured organisms, there
would be no effect on reefs.
   Yes, the removal from the wild of common species from widely dispersed
locations will have no effect on wild populations, and would provide sorely
needed income in developing countries.  But a large part of the trade is
not in the common or rapidly growing species.  Home aquariasts who grow
corals prefer branching species that grow rapidly and fragment easily (like
Acropora).  But the importers prefer fleshy corals because their clientele
buys them.  And some of those fleshy corals are quite rare.  For example,
last year we had a request from an Indonesian official for information-
they were considering a limit of 25,000 Catalaphyllia jardini per year, and
a much higher limit for Nemenzophyllia.  Catalaphyllia is rare enough that
I did not see one in my last 75 dives in Indonesia (and I was looking).
Nemenzophyllia is even rarer- so rare that the world expert, Veron, has
never seen one in the wild!  Is this sustainable harvest, or irresponsible
ripping out of a rare species?  Unfortunately, we don't know, and nobody is
about to put up the money to finance the research needed to find out.  But
on the face of it, it doesn't look good.  (I understand that these corals
can be fragmented and grown in aquaria with care, which would be a better way)
   I have to respond to the view that if villagers collect coral to sell,
they will value their reef and protect it.  If only that were true.  Coral
collecting for the curio trade went on for years in Florida and the
Philippines without any indication of trying to conserve the resource.
Cyanide fishing for the aquarium trade continues widespread in the
Philippines, and is very hard to eradicate.  The live food fish trade is
said to be a billion dollar industry in southeast Asia, and threatens to
extinguish bumphead wrasse and large groupers.  Blast fishing is very
common and hard to control in the Philippines, Indonesia, and elsewhere.
Jamaicans have fished every last adult fish out of their waters, and are
now down to eating new recruits in "fish tea".
   My own guess is that taking things from the wild is a form of mining a
natural resource, and leads to the "tragedy of the commons", a sort of gold
rush were if you don't get it first, others will get all the good stuff,
since no one owns it.  The above examples fit this, and they are the rule
not the exception.  The exception is where someone owns the resource, and
has to protect and grow it to have a crop to harvest and sell, as in
mariculture.  Giant clam farms would be an example, but presently there are
few others.  So a coral farm could lead to locals valuing and protecting
the farm area (reef or not), but collecting from the reef will most likely
only lead to a culture of grabbing as much as fast as possible, regardless
of consequences.  So maybe it all depends on how its done.
   Sadly, this may all be an irrelevant footnote.  There is no agreement to
cut greenhouse gases even by a tiny amount in the nations that produce the
very most.  The worst polluters are not willing to change anything to
reduce emissions- not governments, not individuals.  See your reefs, take
your pictures, do your research in the next few years, then kiss them reefs
goodbye, 'cause they're all going to be gone.  Sure hope that's wrong, but
it doesn't look that way.
   All the sadder, since global warming will cost us all dearly in real
money- floods, droughts, productive farmland turned into shallow seas or
deserts, rising sea levels flooding big coastal cities, loss of all the
huge income from reefs, shoreline protection, etc.  Has anybody started to
make estimates of how much this will all cost compared to reducing
emissions?  Maybe reducing emissions is actually cheaper than the
consequences of global warming??!!  That may be the only thing governments
will listen to.   -Doug
Douglas Fenner, Ph.D.
Coral Biodiversity/Taxonomist
Australian Institute of Marine Science
PMB No 3
Townsville MC
Queensland 4810
phone 07 4753 4334
e-mail: d.fenner at
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