Sustainability is a word that gets thrown around quite a bit these days. As America moved towards a “green” revolution a few years back, the word sustainable and green got tacked on to many things. Here where I live in Maryland, a local HV/AC provider started advertising that they offered a “green” way to heat or cool your home, tagging the slogan “sustainability you can count on” right to their service trucks. Nothing had changed, they still installed HV/AC systems based on whatever technology client’s selected. Clorox released a line of “green works” cleaners, the sustainable way to clean up your messes. Many other companies jumped on the bandwagon of green, and suddenly consumers were left wondering if these were truly sustainable products, or if it was all hype.
Sustainability is a tough cookie to understand. It usually is the high road, the tougher way. It’s not easy to make sustainable products. I liken it to a roll of paper towels. You tear off a towel, use it and just throw it away, out of sight and out of mind. Yet behind our backs, trees are tumbling down to create those towels, and paper is filling up landfills across America. I’m surprised Bounty, or some other paper towel manufacture hasn’t snapped a green nameplate on one of their products. You can find something sustainable about nearly anything, but that doesn’t mean that it truly is.
Merriam-Webster says this about the word sustainable: of, relating to, or being a method of harvesting or using a resource so that the resource is not depleted or permanently damaged. In the reef aquarium world, we are harvesting a resource, whether it be coral, fish or any other form of marine ecosystem. We aren’t harvesting it as food, or to provide shelter, or to better the natural environment. In essence, we are harvesting it for our own personal enjoyment and entertainment. I often make the argument that benefits of this harvest include learning more about what keeps marine life healthy, or fostering a love of marine life in those who are unexposed to coral reefs. While I think those arguments have merit, they exist in the eye of the beholder.
So what is a sustainable reef aquarium, what is a green reef aquarium? Is it an aquarium that uses the least amount of electricity possible, or one that holds only captive bred livestock? Or is the key to sustainability in the reef aquarium industry and hobby part of a much larger picture?
Let’s take every other industry that harvests from the oceans out of the picture. Seafood, energy, all of them, and only focus on aquariums. Pretend for the duration of this post that reef aquariums are the only industry that takes animals and habitat from the sea. We can take some live rock, we can take some invertebrates, coral and fish. The ecosystem seems to rebound just fine, so we can take a little bit more, the cycle repeats and repeats. It continues repeating until suddenly there is a noticeable impact. Before we couldn’t tell that we had taken anything, now it’s becoming obvious. We continue to take, while the ecosystem still shows signs of continual decline. No longer is the hobby sustainable. Whether or not other factors are contributing to the decline really don’t matter, simply because if the ecosystem we rely on for our harvest is showing signs of degradation, we aren’t “sustaining” it, we are aiding in its destruction.
So let’s go back to the original question, what is a sustainable aquarium. Imagine two scenarios: in one, an aquarist pours a lot of time into research about marine ecosystems, their effect on the Earth, mankind and the animal kingdom. They then research keeping marine life in captivity, learning the fundamentals of reef aquarium keeping and beyond. They network with expert aquarists, some of the people who contribute to this website, learning more and more. Finally they accept a methodology and begin setting up an aquarium. Finally, they stock their new tank, and follow a protocol that has proven successful to many others. They opt for as much captive propagated and bred livestock as possible, they don’t cut corners. While they experience some loss, overall they are successful, creating a beautiful marine ecosystem right in the comfort of their home. Yes, occasionally they add livestock, but they also trade and swap frags, possibly even breed clownfish or another species, sharing the love with fellow aquarists. Being conscientious, they never keep a species they know they cannot house for it’s entire lifetime. Their foray into a fish shop for a new species is rare, as most of their charges are healthy and happy.
Scenario two: a customer walks into a fish shop, and falls in love with a juvenile species that grows large. They talk to the store owner, and realize this beautiful animal can be kept in a 40 gallon tank. They buy the tank, set it up at home, wait a few days, even perform some rudimentary water tests. Returning to the fish store, they grab their gorgeous specimen and rush home. Within two weeks or less, it’s dead. They go back and get another. Dead again. Another. Dead again. Finally their tank is cycled so this time the species lives. They add a few more animals, some live, other die, freeze, replace, freeze, replace – the cycle continues. Month to month, the original animal continues to grow. Now the aquarist wants to keep corals. They throw a few hundred dollars into tank upgrades, and the freeze replace cycle begins again, this time with corals. Behind that one aquarist, one of the millions of aquarists worldwide, is a trail of dead animals.
Now, take a moment to decide which of these scenarios is sustainable. It’s simple math. Sustainability in this hobby is a combination of restraint, patience, responsibility, appreciation and respect. It’s realizing that marine animals are part of the vital life support system of planet Earth. Understanding that for each animal we take from the sea, a ripple effect flows throughout that ecosystem, and for each animal we kill in our tanks, that’s one more animal that will never fulfill its ecological duties. Remember, oceanic ecosystems are a place where life is never wasted, and everything serves a purpose. Most importantly, it’s understanding that just because you can afford financially to do something, that ultimately you should not. Sort of like Spiderman’s, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”
My start in those hobby and industry was along the lines of scenario two. When I began researching marine ecosystems, and ultimately witnessing their majesty underwater, it occurred to me that my approach, along with millions and millions of others, was inherently flawed. Largely understanding the importance of the ocean, and its massive collection of creatures has driven me to aid other aquarists in not repeating my own mistakes.
As the industry and hobby enter the 21st century, the very ecosystems we depend on for our enjoyment are in great peril. A sea change of thought should be occurring, in how marine aquariums are established, stocked, managed and cared for. Real change should be occurring in how marine animals are collected, exported, imported, sold, etc. Some level of oversight or regulation should be governing just what one private person can do with a collection of marine life, no matter what their personal wealth is. Some things have gotten better, some things have gotten worse, and others remain unchanged. Needless to say, there is ample room for improvement at every tier of the hobby and in every hall of the industry.
As always, if you are seeking to venture into the hobby in a sustainable fashion, or are trying to streamline your current system’s footprint on Mother Nature, and would like some advice or new direction, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.