FW: aquariums save reefs?

Julian Sprung julian at twolittlefishies.com
Wed Nov 29 13:00:58 EST 2000

I thought I cc'd this to the coral list but I did not get a copy so I'll try


From: "Julian Sprung" <julian at twolittlefishies.com>
To: Doug Fenner <d.fenner at aims.gov.au>
Subject: Re: aquariums save reefs?
Date: Wed, Nov 29, 2000, 10:39 AM

Dear Doug,

While I agree with most of your arguments, I think you may have missed the
point of proponents of the idea that aquariums save reefs.

The harvest of marinelife for aquariums, managed properly, is something we
really should promote because it promotes reef conservation.

Putting aside for the moment the potential risk to rare species, the harvest
of fist sized or smaller, few months to 2 year old colonies of common
species is demonstrably harmless to the environment and therefore provides
an industry that promotes reef conservation by giving value to the reef
resource. Doing so, as you know, tends to prevent local human activities
that would harm the resource (ie. dynamite or cyanide fishing among others).
The locals given a steady source of income from the harvest of small live
corals protect their source of income, and that resource is perpetual
because the rate of harvest has so little impact on it.

One could argue that the dive industry, which I also support, similarly
promotes reef conservation by giving value to the resource, as it certainly
does, but it does so with a bigger impact environmentally in that it also
promotes the building of resorts and other supporting facilities, and brings
more pollution.

Will aquariums save reefs from global warming? Certainly not. The notion of
giving back to mother nature what's grown in the widespread population of
home aquariums is certainly far-fetched, I agree. Furthermore, home
aquariums, even expertly maintained with corals growing like weeds, are
nearly always a "hodge podge" of stuff from all over the place, so they do
not segregate regional diversity in the way that would be required were they
to be used for re-introductions of any kind.

However, a program of setting up national regional "botanical garden"
variety aquariums as genetic diversity conservatories in the regions of the
reefs themselves has potential merit if anyone wishes to save LOCAL
diversity of the fast growing and also fast dying corals like Acropora or
Seriatopora. I agree that we really don't need to do this, but it could also
be argued that such a program would work if managed properly, and at
relatively low expense.

Perpetuating the life of the extremely rare and threatened species you
mentioned in your post could easily be done with clonal propagation
techniques in aquaria. Again, it is not necessary to do so, and if it is the
destiny of such corals to go extinct without our intervention to prevent it,
so be it. But we really do have the ability to use aquaria to insure their
survival. Even if a local government has no interest in such a program, I'm
sure that a public aquarium would be interested, given the permission.
Public aquariums have done this with some threatened freshwater fish
species. In fact, when a population of a single coral species is so
localized and small, aquarium propagation is the only means I can think of
to insure its survival.

While there are many issues to address concerning the aquarium industry, I
just wanted to focus my reply on the topic you discussed. I want to add that
members of this list should be familiar with the work being done by the
Marine Aquarium Council to promote reef conservation and sustainable,
ethical harvest and care of marinelife for aquariums. Please see there
website or contact MAC for more information.

923 Nu'uanu Ave., Honolulu, Hawaii  USA  96817
Phone: (+1 808) 550-8217    Fax: (+1 808) 550-8317
Email: paul.holthus at aquariumcouncil.org
Website: www.aquariumcouncil.org


Julian Sprung

>From: Doug Fenner <d.fenner at aims.gov.au>
>To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
>Subject: aquariums save reefs?
>Date: Wed, Nov 29, 2000, 3:45 PM

>    A while back, someone suggested that since reefs were dying, perhaps one
> could save things by setting up an aquarium and stocking it with species to
> try to save as many as possible.  Laudable as the intention is, I'm quite
> skeptical of this approach.
>    Briefly: reefs are highly threatened, but coral species may not be.  And
> aquariums, especially in beginners' hands, will save neither coral species
> nor reefs.
> Longer argument:
>    First, global warming is predicted to cause massive and repeated
> bleaching and death of reef corals within 20 years.  Reefs are in grave
> danger, but coral species, however, are not.  Death of most individual
> corals will still leave a few individuals of most species to carry on the
>    There are a few very rare species of coral that are in fact in danger,
> but few people seem much concerned- for example, on the Pacific coast of
> Panama there are 2 species of coral currently known from 5 colonies each.
> If that's not endangered, I'd like to know what is.  These numbers are
> published, and yet as far as I know, there is no push to list them as
> Endangered Species.  CITIES (Convention on International Trade in
> Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) has a list for Endangered
> Species (Appendix I), but they are not on it.  Instead, all corals,
> including those whose populations may be in the billions of tons
> (estimates, anyone?), are all on the Appendix II list of CITIES, so trade
> is permitted, but permits required.  The reason for this?  To try to help
> countries control the trade in corals for curios to gather dust on shelves
> in homes, or to stock aquariums, to avoid the wholesale destruction of
> reefs (i.e, to save reefs, not species).  I remember hearing that dynamite
> and dump trucks were used to collect corals in Florida years ago for the
> shell shops; there wouldn't be much left there if that was allowed to
>    As for other species on reefs, relatively few fish, molluscs, or other
> macrofauna are probably at risk of species extinction in the near future.
> A study of reef fish found only 5 species that were critically endangered
> (2 of these probably already extinct), one that was endangered and 172 that
> were vulnerable (out of about 1700 fish species).  A list of all types of
> marine animals facing extinction (or already extinct) on and off reefs
> listed just 13 species, at least one of which (Banggai Cardinalfish) is not
> facing immanent extinction.  Some macrofauna may already be commercially
> extinct and be locally extinct, like the largest giant clam, Tridacna
> gigas, but the species is not close to global extinction.  Without action
> maybe it will be, but can we use it like the Spotted Owl in the US Pacific
> Northwest to protect entire ecosystems?  It doesn't require healthy reefs
> to live, and is easily bred in mariculture, so it may be hard to argue that
> we must save reefs in order to save that species.
>     I would guess that almost all of the world's coral reefs could be
> "destroyed", that is 99% dead, without loosing very many species of
> macrofauna (some, but not very many).  A few individuals of each species
> are likely to survive on most reefs.  (maybe we need some serious research
> to see how far I'm off the mark)  Could be that we would loose genetic
> diversity that would make them unable to adapt to a changing environment.
> Might loose some microfauna- I understand there are some amphipods with
> extremely restricted ranges.  Shall we try to save entire coral reefs by
> adopting the slogan "Save the amphipods"?  Un-charismatic microfauna may
> not help much.  Reefs themselves are far more charismatic.  Don't get me
> wrong, I'm certainly not advocating reef destruction- quite the opposite-
> but we need to distinguish reef destruction from species extinction- one
> does not necessarily lead to the other.
>    One limit to my argument may be crucial- if bleaching that kills most of
> the individual corals on a reef happens repeatedly without time for the
> reef to recover (which is exactly what global warming will probably do),
> soon even species will probably start to go extinct.  The situation is
> indeed very scary.  The important thing is to stop the destruction of
> reefs, not to argue about whether species will go extinct.
>    Secondly, a home aquarium set up by a beginner is not going to help save
> endangered species; rather, it is more likely to kill.  Yes, corals can be
> grown in aquariums and fragments spread to other aquariums and potentially
> returned to the wild.  Yes, more people are learning how to do this.  Yes,
> that's great.  But the reality as far as I know is that you have to know
> what you're doing, lots of people don't know yet, and fish shops continue
> to sell large quantities of live coral and fish (taken from reefs) because
> many or most home aquariums continue to be one way tickets- live things go
> in, dead things come out.  This is particularly likely for a beginner, but
> also includes many or most public aquariums with large budgets- do you
> really think they breed every fish species they have on display enough to
> replace the fish that die?  No way.  Sad, but true.  This does not diminish
> all the great things that aquariums, public and private do, for education,
> getting people to love the animals and be concerned for their protection,
> etc.  (fish life spans may even be longer in the aquarium)  But those good
> things don't change the fact that most aquariums are net consumers of
> living things, not producers.
>    So my advice is if you want to get an aquarium, get one because you
> think its beautiful, but don't delude yourself into thinking you're helping
> to save a reef or a species.  If you want to help a reef, get a freshwater
> aquarium instead, and switch from that gas-guzzeling monster you (may)
> drive into a highly fuel efficient vehicle, and push your government to
> reduce CO2 emissions.  So far, I know of no indication that people in
> developed countries or wealthy people in developing countries are at all
> inclined to give up big vehicles; on the contrary their popularity is
> increasing.  Americans produce 3 times the per capita CO2 that French do,
> and 6 times the Chinese.  (I read Australians even exceed Americans) -Doug
> Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2000 (PDF document, by
> Clive Wilkison, Global Coordinator) is now posted on the Global Coral
> Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) page at: http://www.coral.noaa.gov/gcrmn/
> Hoegh-Guldberg, O. 1999.  Climate change, coral bleaching and the future of
> the world's coral reefs.  Marine and Freshwater Research 50:  839-866.
> Hawkins, J. P., C. M. Roberts & V. Clark.  2000.  The threatened status of
> restricted-range coral reef fish species.  Animal Conservation 3: 81-88.
> Roberts, C. M. & J. P. Hawkins.  1999.  Extinction risk in the sea.  Trends
> in Ecology and Evolution 14: 241-246.
> Douglas Fenner, Ph.D.
> Coral Biodiversity/Taxonomist
> Australian Institute of Marine Science
> PMB No 3
> Townsville MC
> Queensland 4810
> Australia
> phone 07 4753 4334
> e-mail: d.fenner at aims.gov.au
> web: http://www.aims.gov.au
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