You’re seeing it everywhere. “Sustainability”. You’re going to see this buzzword-of-the-decade coming up more and more as we debate a more responsible marine aquarium trade for the future, such as Ret Talbot’s hot-off-the-presses article on PNG’s Seasmart Program in this month’s CORAL Magazine. The most recent debate and calls for sustainability come not from outside, but within.
These calls for a sustainable marine aquarium industry are grabbing attention even in the national press. First there was a New York Times article, “Crawling to Collapse”, and now more recently, the highly publicized calls of 18 scientists for increased governmental regulation (“How U.S. ocean policy and market power can reform the coral reef wildlife trade” – download from CORAL’s website.). Some of the players involved in this recent media attention are “household names” in a reef keeper’s world. In my opinion, some of the arguments put forth come with some pretty substantial flaws, but overall, these scientists are demanding that our industry be more accountable and sustainable. The intentions of these papers and articles are largely good, and I’m not here to dissect this recent work and point out the flaws. Nor am I here to raise alarm about bringing undue attention to our industry and unwittingly making us the convenient scapegoat of legislators who can then say “they did something”, while not really doing anything to address the real causes of the impending oceanic collapse.
However, I’m starting to see the notion that “Sustainability results in Preservation” being put forth. Often, there is a subtext that the captive breeding of marine organisms is actually a problem because it completes with a sustainable wild trade, and is making it difficult promote “sustainable collection” practices.
A prime example of the proposed “conflict of interest” is laid out in a recent forum post made by Dr. Andy Rhyne (who happens to be involved in both recent news items, and also happens to be a newly elected Board Member of MOFIB, the Marine Ornamental Fish and Invertebrate Breeders Association). Rhyne writes, “I would like to start a discussion about the need for us to ensure we are supportive of wild fisheries that are benefiting natural ecosystems. It is wrong to think of it as easy as just aquaculture species and thus we are conserving reefs. If wild fisheries like this are properly managed then it has a larger conservation impact than aquaculture. In fact aquaculture can often have a negative impact if livelihoods are taken away from a sustainable fishery and these fisherman start collecting grouper or other food fish with destructive fishing methods. The best example is a fishery saving a rain forest. If remove this fishery by captive production we take away the incentive for these fisherman to protect their resource from loggers.”
I believe Rhyne’s position is wrong, or at the very least, shortsighted. MPAs (Marine Protection Areas) and Sustainable Fishery programs do nothing to stop climate change and ocean acidification. These are the real worldwide evils affecting our oceans. You can’t have vested local interest, or the sustainable fishery that creates local value, if there’s nothing left to harvest because ocean acidification or climate change wiped it out.
I need to remind Dr. Rhyne and others that captive sexual propagation is the only fail-safe option for species preservation once the natural habitat is gone. Captive breeding at this point requires wild collection, so we do need to support sustainability efforts as Dr. Rhyne suggests, on that point I can agree. Captive breeders should be looking for the highest quality possible, and that can come from sustainable programs.
Encouraging captive breeding can shift which consumers purchase what. When it comes to wild caught fish, the products of sustainable programs, we need to substitute one type of consumer, the entry level or average hobbyist, for a different consumer, specifically the breeder. Promoting this “shift” in who consumes what might in fact allow for a more selective, lower impact, higher value trade in wild caught fish (we harvest less, we treat them better, we charge more) – the very definition of a more sustainable trade! Breeders, with the need for diverse genetics and quality broodstock, are the consumers that have a genuine demonstrable need for wild caught fish. Breeders are also the consumers who will understand the value of sustainably harvested wild caught fish and invertebrates, and they generally may have greater levels of experience, and thus the greatest chance at keeping wild caught marines successfully . If we promote captive breeding, we’ll have more breeders, so it’s not like we’re totally removing the demand for wild caught fish, we will be creating a new and different demand. The average hobbyist however, should be very happy primarily consuming captive bred fish. The net result is a win-win situation for both short term sustainability and long term preservation.
This isn’t a revolutionary idea. This “split demand”, after all, is largely how the freshwater side of our hobby functions, with MOST fish sold being captive bred, supplemented by wild fish. It is typically the breeders who consume high quality, high cost wild caught fish, and more often it is the entry level hobbyist who is purchasing captive bred stock.
I don’t see many freshwater industry specialists condemning captive breeding because it’s competing with a wild fish trade, and thus indirectly condoning the destruction of wild populations (a notable exception may be the Cardinal Tetra trade, thanks Richard Ross!). In fact, I need only to cite the Red Tailed Shark, Epalzeorhynchos bicolor (formerly Labeo bicolor), a fish that’s seen in virtually every aquarium store that carries freshwater fish. It is a bread-and-butter fish of the aquarium hobby and is readily obtainable by anyone who wants to own it. Even the die hard saltwater enthusiats probably knows this fish. Yet the general consensus is that the Red Tail Shark has been extinct in the wild since 1996, if not longer. Yes, when you buy a Red Tailed Shark and put it in your tank, you aren’t keeping an “endangered” species, you’re keeping an “extinct species”!
I don’t think sustainable wild collection of the Red Tailed Shark would have saved it from extinction in the wild, as it probably wouldn’t have stopped the damming and habitat destruction that is suspected to be the cause of demise in this species. Certainly, if the Red Tailed Shark’s habitat loss was the result of climate change or ongoing pollution, sustainable harvest would’ve just dried up along with the rivers the fish lived in! I think this example really hits home that “Captive Breeding results in Preservation”. If we had said “it’s a bad idea to breed Red Tailed Sharks because it takes collection jobs away from the locals and devalues the native environment”, this species would be completely extinct. The aquarium hobby, and captive breeding specifically, has been the savior of this species.
Ultimately, sustainability does not automatically result in preservation, and certainly not when applied to the coral reefs under the pressures they are currently facing. There are forces at play that are much larger than the marine aquarium industry, and regrettably these forces cannot be countered simply through “better management” and regulation of the marine aquarium trade. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support sustainable practices, just that we should realize now that sustainable practices are not enough to truly preserve the natural biodiversity of our beloved coral reefs. Arguments such as Dr. Rhyne’s suggest that sustainability trumps captive propagation. Invariably, I believe sustainability has a finite lifespan given our current situation. We can’t start pursuing captive breeding once sustainable practices have already failed – it will be way too late.
What sustainability can’t do for coral reefs in light of larger issues, captive propagation can. We should not vilify one in order to promote the other. Not only is there room for both, it is my belief that there is a requirement for both. In the long run, I am pessimistically more inclined to believe that captive propagation, not sustainable wild collection, will be the final savior of our hobby and coral reefs. Sustainability buys us the time to become better breeders!