Reef keeping is getting a bad buzz these days. The reason I keep bringing up topics like Snorkel Bob, the state of the hobby, etc, is because I believe aquarists have a right to know what’s going on, and hopefully to spur dialogue into what can be done to make the hobby better. Oceanic conservation deserves all the attention it’s getting. Right now plastic is filling up the ocean, climate change is altering the severity of weather worldwide, and coral reefs along with large pelagic species are headed for complete decimation in less than 50 years. While the reef aquarium industry isn’t as rooted in environmental decline as say commercial fishing, it factors into the equation. Enough so that conservationists and legislators have begun taking a close look at our beloved hobby. If you think I am all worked up over nothing, please take a look at the following links:
There are many things that could be done better within the hobby, ranging from our personal treatment of marine life on up to corporate policies about collection and sale. Here are a few changes that could be made within large pet outlets that sell marine life, streamlining the industry into something not only more rewarding, but far more sustainable.
- Large marine life vendors take an active role in sustainable collection:
Whether or not as marine hobbyists we want to admit it, most people who venture into this hobby will do so from within the walls of a store akin to Petco. These “Walmarts” of the pet trade exist in nearly every suburb, city, and town – and have garnished the reputation of offering little to no consumer education, and loads of disinformation. The quality of the assistance you receive at one of these outlets varies based on each individual store, but corporate policy effects the entire chain.
These outlets would have the resources to have a huge impact on the hobby. Traveling abroad and founding collection stations, where local islanders were educated on sustainable collection and propagation, could help relieve pressure from natural reefs on two fronts. One, if collectors were paid adequately, they would have no reason to provide fish for the food industry, or reef resources to any other industry. Two, it could streamline shipping and import procedures that account for the death of thousands and thousands of marine animals. Proper collection would ensure healthy animals from the start, sustainable collection would ensure the health of wild reefs and a lack of middle men would keep the cost of marine fish at an affordable rate.
I don’t have intimate knowledge of the large retail chains’ corporate policies, but I have spoken to employees for several that handle the acquisition of marine life. From what I’ve been told, the focus is on the cheapest fish, or those highest in demand. Consumer loss of livestock is factored in towards a bottom line profit, and while not encouraged, consumers replacing dead livestock is profitable enough that it’s added into the income formula.
- Appoint passionate, informed, and ecologically conscientious aquarists to manage every aquatics department.
Many of us have had a few laughs about the advice given by many large outlet’s “aquatics managers.” I have heard some crazy stuff within large retail chain’s marine aquarium isle, from insane stocking guidelines down to keeping corals under ridiculous conditions. While it’s good for a head shaking chuckle, it’s bad for the future of our hobby. Aquarists need to be informed and educated. Putting passionate aquarists in charge of aquatics departments, and paying them a competitive wage, would nearly solve this entire problem. I am not suggesting that every aquatics manager be a phD marine biologist, but at least an aquarist with a strong foundation in aquatic principles and with empathy towards marine life.
- Form a corporate aquatics board that makes decisions on the collection, import, sale, and marketing of marine life.
A board made up of marine aquarium experts and ocean ecology experts would function to vote on corporate policy regarding the sale of marine life. People like Ret Talbot, Julian Sprung, and others would be perfect candidates for such a board. Each fiscal quarter evaluate the current state of not only marine life sales, but also global reef health and public policy, and use a body of information to change or update corporate policy. If nothing else, having such a board in place would ensure that the company as a whole is keeping up with modern legislation.
- Form reef aquatics clubs and facilitate expert speakers, workshops, etc.
A Petco about an hour from my home recently started an aquatics club, and the results seem to be pretty promising. I suggest taking it a step further, and offering monthly workshops hosted by aquatics experts, educating reef keepers on how to maintain healthy livestock, with a bit of wild reef ecology and biology thrown in for good measure. Perhaps tap into that new aquatics board to form programs that educate prospective and established reefers. If the cost to facilitate something like this is a concern, charge a yearly membership fee. I think many aquarists would be willing to pay, if the option to have cutting edge information in their hometown was available. Forming a subscription-based website that gave customers access to accurate, current information and technique would be another great option, and allow aquarists to network on a large scale.
- Shift the focus from price to quality.
In speaking with former employees of outlets like Petco, it’s clear the focus is on how cheaply can we acquire marine life and for how much can we sell it. This has the terrible consequence of getting marine life from unscrupulous collectors who implement techniques that result in dead livestock. I believe aquarists are willing to pay more for a fish that will remain healthy, than one that was cheap to buy but ultimately is expensive to replace. Getting in cheaply-collected fish and corals that are in poor condition does nothing but enrich share holders and CEOs through the buy and replace profit mentality. It’s a bad policy for the ocean, captive aquatic life, and aquarists, and creates a hobby that will be heavily regulated or outlawed within the next few years.
- Place profit generation on educational resources, not marine life.
Clearly any business the size of a large retail pet outlet has to make a profit. Right now, it appears like profit is generated from mass sales of highly marked-up animals, which have been obtained at the lowest possible cost. Lower the profit margin on individual marine life sales, getting in sustainably captured animals, and offer them at fair prices. Close the profit gap by offering educational resources for aquarists. This would not only help keep the balance sheet in the black, but also put that shiny new aquatics specialist to work.
A sea change of thought and policy is needed in the reef aquarium industry. More people, (and thus marine life) move through large retail outlets than any other vendor. These corporations have the resources to do it right. If the focus can change from shareholder wealth and executive salary – switching to earning a profit through healthy animals and education, a huge battle for the future of our beloved hobby is won. While you’re at it, stop making really stupid decisions. For example, a Petco not far from my home places captive bred clownfish and cardinalfish in tanks alongside all their wild caught livestock. Doesn’t this totally defeat the purpose of captive bred livestock that has not been exposed to common aquarium pathogens?
If you work, or have worked for a large pet chain that sells marine life, and would like to share a story (good, bad or otherwise) feel free to email me email@example.com.