As a longtime friend of Marine Earth Capital’s (MEC) founders, I am honored to contribute to the Gaia Endeavors blog. Brett is the reason behind my SCUBA certification, Arya and I have been longtime school mates and travel companions. I took an immediate interest in MEC given my current hobby, keeping a saltwater aquarium. As life took over, I found less time for SCUBA diving. I can’t remember how it happened, but late one night I had the insatiable urge to put a piece of the reef in my apartment. After loads of research, some trial and error, and encouragement from my wife, I took the plunge. I have successfully kept a wide range of fish, soft corals, large polyp stony corals, small-polyp stony corals, and marine invertebrates over the last three years. It did not take long to realize how my hobby is dependent on healthy reef habitat and the immense potential for captive bred endeavors.
Saltwater aquarists currently rely on obtaining fish specimens that are wild-caught. Unlike the freshwater industry where 90% of fish are captive-raised, some estimate only 10% of saltwater fish are captive-raised. Slightly more than 1,000 different species of reef fish are collected for the aquarium industry, the majority taken from reefs in Southeast Asia. Only recently have some countries banned the use of reef-harming chemicals to stun and capture fish. Enforcement remains a challenge. A UN Environmental Program report in 2002 estimated that 27 million specimens were caught each year for the saltwater aquarium industry.
The market for corals enjoys a much more robust aquaculture presence. The community has created a diverse coral trade/buy/sell market, and a number of retail operations are successful thanks to aquaculture philosophy. Advances in equipment, technology, and the spread of knowledge via Internet communities have made large-scale coral propagation a reality.
Efforts are currently underway to create a sustainable market for live stock. Oceans Reefs and Aquariums (ORA) operates a large-scale facility in Florida and the Marshall Islands. ORA has an industry reputation for beautiful coral morphs and has captive-bred numerous species of fish for the industry. Dr. Mac at PacificEast Aquaculture has established a number of relationships with local villages in Indonesia and the Philippines. A growing number of communities, realizing the need to begin sustainable practices, have stopped harsh capture methods in favor of captive-raised ones.
The community is not yet well informed regarding fish appropriate to keep in a captive system. Lots of fish, while beautiful, are not suitable. Many fish do not live in harmony with corals in a closed system. The physical constraints of an aquarium tank make it difficult for some species to live healthy captive lives.
Saltwater aquariums are beautiful, and through them we can gain insight into brilliant and diverse underwater ecosystems. However, the hobby should not contribute to the decline of healthy reefs, which face enough man-created hardships. It is my hope that hobbyists and entrepreneurs can create sustainable endeavors to keep our hobby thriving and to keep information flowing freely so we do not decimate populations of wildlife we should not be keeping in our living rooms.