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Over the past 20 years, the demand for ornamental reef fish has increased exponentially in the aquarium reef hobby. Statistics provided by the Pacific Fisheries Coalition (PFC) state that 80% of the reef fish collected for the hobby are from Hawaiian reefs. Although collectors suggest they use “non-destructive” practices of collecting, the overall effect is destructive on the ecology of the reef. In a study by Semmens et al. 2004, they found that after periods of collection in non-protected areas invasive species were more likely to successfully inhabit the area. In another study, Kolm et al. 2003 found that Bangii Cardinal group sizes were altered after collection and reduced the fitness of the fish and had an effect on urchin populations as well. Scientists are still trying to figure out the complexity of these ecosystems and what effect the organisms have on each other. This ecological balance is sensitive and should not be overexploited just for reef keeping purposes.

Although there have been legislative efforts to protect local ecosystems, the system has many flaws. As we learned at the Fish Auction, there is no limit to the number of permits for commercial and non-commercial collectors, but there IS a limit to the number of fishermen who can sell their catch on any given day. This does not affect the reef fish collectors since they send their catch straight to the mainland. Moreover, even though there are laws that require collectors to file catch reports, 59.5% did not even file and 19% that did file reported “no catch” (Kim Moffie 2002).










The Yellow Tang, Zebrasoma flavescens makes up 70% of the fish caught in the reef aquarium industry (PFC). Of the top collected species in Hawai’I, 45% are endemic. photo by:

What bothers me about the whole fish trade ordeal is that some island nations depend on it for their income (even though it makes up about 1% the value of reefs), but all they do is take take take until the reefs are degraded. It’s much like the problem we saw in The Cove where the fishermen in Taiji, Japan said killing dolphins is no different from us killing cows for their meat. BUT THERE IS! We raise the domesticated animals to a reasonable extent and they just kill off entire populations of dolphins. The same goes (in my mind) for the fish trade. If it is so important to their livelihood, then why don’t they just raise their own fish? 2% of fresh water aquarium fish are from the wild, while 98% of saltwater fish are from the wild. Above that, 60% of those saltwater fish die before they even make it to the aquarium (PFC) so they must keep replenishing the fish in the stores. I know it is more difficult to breed saltwater fish in the aquarium due to their specific planktonic needs, but marine biologists at The University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute are researching ways to improve captive breeding so that the health of wild reefs will not be altered any more.











Kolm, N. and Berglund, A. 2003. Wild Populations of a Reef Fish Suffer from the “Nondestructive” Aquarium Trade Fishery. Conservation Biology: 17:3: 910-914.

Oppenheimer, D. 2011. Captive breeding could transform the saltwater aquarium trade and save coral reefs. University of Texas at Austin. Earth & Climate.

Pacific Fisheries Coalition, 2008. Impacts of Aquarium Trade in Hawaii. Unpublished. <>.

Semmens, B.X. 2004. A hotspot of non-native marine fishes: evidence for the aquarium trade as an invasion pathway. Marine Ecology Progress Series 266: 239-244.


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