Marine Aquarium Trade: A Force for Good in Saving Coral Reefs

Fish catch for the table: reef-side native people depend on their local waters for food and income. Landmark new paper says that a sustainable marine aquarium trade may be a key to the future of healthy coral reef areas By Ret Talbot The fate of coral reefs worldwide is now a well-publicized, front-page, six o’clock news crisis. In fact, three marine scientists just published a landmark paper that leads with this daunting proclamation: “Coral reefs are at the brink of a global, system-wide collapse.” Lead author of the paper, Dr. Andrew L. Rhyne: “Ending cyanide fishing and effective trade monitoring are necessary and critical short-term gains for the marine aquarium trade.” Ending cyanide fishing and effective trade monitoring are necessary and critical short-term gains. For those involved in the keeping of marine aquaria, it is logical—perhaps even imperative—to wonder whether or not embattled reef ecosystems can sustain fisheries pressure in addition to all the other stressors they face. Often the heated arguments come down to these two points of contention: 1. Is it possible to harvest live fishes and invertebrates from coral reefs in a sustainable manner?

Overnight Sensation: New Captive-bred Reef Fish from ORA

Eastern Hulafish, new captive-bred reef fish native to New South Wales, Australia. Image: ORA. Meet the Eastern Hulafish, Trachinops taeniatus, the newest aquacultured fish for the reef aquarium and exclusively available from its breeder, ORA in Ft. Pierce, Florida. This sub-tropical species is from New South Wales off southeastern Australia  and is related to the Assessors and Comets, all in the family Plesiopidae. The fish is not unknown to marine aquarists and divers who study the reef fishes of Australia, but it comes from cooler temperate waters where little commercial collecting takes place. “The Eastern Hulafish is native to the southeast coastline of Australia where the water temperatures average 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees C),” says Dustin Dorton of ORA.  ”While these fish have fared very well in our Florida greenhouses, they can exhibit distress in water over 78 degrees (25 degrees C).  Care should be taken to ensure their aquarium temperature always remains below 78 degrees.” They are very colorful fish with a black stripe running down the middle of their elongate body from the operculum towards the tail. They are red and yellow above the black stripe and their ventral portion is white.  Some have iridescent blue scales on the face.  As they age, their caudal fin grows into a spade shape, with the males having more exaggerated filaments. These are shoaling fish, and ORA recommends keeping them in groups of 4-5 or more. When kept in groups these fish exhibit a unique swimming behavior,  hovering at an angle which is said to suggest a cluster of hula dancers. Trachinops taeniatus grow to a maximum size of about 4 inches (10 cm) and are micropredators, eating small food items such as copepods, Artemia, Mysis, small pellets and flakes for carnivores. ORA says, “They are peaceful fishes that do not harass other species.  Eastern Hulafish are extremely fast swimmers and are prone to jumping out aquariums so is important that their tank be kept covered.” Available in limited quantities now from ORA. (Announced December 13, 2013.)  Sources Oceans, Reefs & Aquariums - ORA Fishbase: Trachinops taeniatus

Brittle Stars: Secrets of the Ophiuroidea

Ophiothela sp. on a zooxanthellate gorgonian. Although brittle stars are not main attraction in most reefs, they do make an interesting side show. By Daniel Knop Web Bonus Content from the September/October 2013 Issue of CORAL Magazine Additional Bonus Brittle Star Articles Brittle stars have a peculiar body plan. A round central body disc carries five, six, or even seven slender, radiating arms that move like snakes. The arms gave these animals not only their other common name, serpent stars, and their scientific name, Ophiuroidea (Greek: ophis = snake), but these appendages also repel some hobbyists —not everyone likes snakes. The tube feet of brittle stars have no suction cups. The arms of brittle stars, unlike those of starfishes, do not seamlessly attach to the central body disc but are sharply delineated. In some species, the arms also form numerous branches. Another difference between brittle stars and starfishes is that brittle stars are able to move their arms sideways, which allows for rapid locomotion. The arms consist of individual calcite vertebral ossicles that are hinged together. Ambulacral feet (tube feet) are located on the bottom of the animal. As in other echinoderms, the feet are controlled and moved by a hydraulic canal system inside the body. They lack the suction cup extensions that starfishes use to attach to the substrate, but they do have some adhesiveness, allowing many species to dab up food particles with them. Brittle stars use their feet mainly for olfactory sensations. The mouth is the only opening of the digestive tract; there is no anal opening. Actually, the term “tract” is a misnomer here, since it is only a stomach cavity in which the food is digested to recover the nutrients. Afterwards, the waste is eliminated again via the mouth. In principle, the brittle star’s food intake is similar to that of the starfish. These two classes of animals also share many other similarities. However, besides the differences described above, most brittle star species have spines on their arms and the madreporite, which connects the ambulacral system that controls the hydraulic feet with the surrounding water, is not located on the top side, as it is in starfishes, but on the bottom. The gonads (bursae), in which the germ cells are formed, are located in the respiratory cavities on both sides of the armpits. The previous article describes the localization and function of the bursae in detail. Sinosura kelheimense fossil from Germany’s Solnhofen Limestone. Brittle stars are known from fossils since the Early Ordovician, a geological period that began 485 million years ago, but their scientific classification has not been particularly well studied. Because of their delicate bodies, these echinoderms only rarely formed continuous fossils that could provide scientific information about the relationships of extinct species. Therefore, we know much more about the evolutionary history of other animal groups. Usually, the arms of brittle stars disintegrate quickly into their individual components. Such fossil pieces are found often, but they are not very specific, and even experts usually have difficulty with their taxonomic classification. Ophiomastix annulosa, for sale at the Kölle Zoo pet super store in Heilbronn, can be seen even during daylight hours. Habitat Today, brittle stars are almost omnipresent in the world’s oceans. They are found in virtually all habitats, from the intertidal zone down to depths of more than 23,000 feet (7,000 m). In coral reefs and adjacent habitats, they are often found in large densities, for example in sediments or the intertidal zone. Many species live in community with corals or other invertebrates, particularly dwarf species that remain below 0.8 inch (2 cm). They form veritable colonies that cling with their thin arms to the branches of soft or horn corals during the day and stretch the arms out at night to catch plankton in the open water. Filtering brittle stars, such as this tiny Ophiothela sp. (oral disc diameter 3 mm) on a gorgonian branche have feathered tube feet. Beyond the reefs, brittle stars will occupy any ecological niche that is available to them. Excellent examples are underwater mountains, ecosystems that have been known and explored for only a few years. These mountains rise from the seabed but do not reach the surface. They are usually formed by submarine volcanoes. Their isolated location makes them ideal for the development of marine communities, which consist of sponges, corals, and other invertebrates, and sometimes also of crustaceans and fishes. Larvae drift there with the currents and can establish themselves, but the distances to coral reefs are so great that predators of any kind can hardly reach them. These deep-water reef communities are fed by planktonic organisms carried by ocean currents. On one such underwater mountain south of New Zealand, whose summit is located about 295 feet (90 m) below the sea surface, tens of millions of brittle stars have been found in massive accumulations—in some places more than 100 per 11 square feet (1 m2). Evolutionary history Brittle stars are related to sea lilies (crinoids)—sessile animals with simplified bodies and reduced structures. They gave up their mobility and environmental awareness in order to colonize new ecological niches. The vast majority of their representatives have been extinct for a long time; only a few deep-sea species still exist. According to today’s understanding, the precursor forms of the crinoids developed the five-segment radial (pentaradial) symmetry from the original two-sided body shape (bilateral symmetry) that we find today in echinoderms such as sea urchins, starfishes, and brittle stars. The original two-sided symmetry is still visible in the eight-armed ophiopluteus larvae from which brittle stars emerge. Fossil sea lilies of the class Crinoidea. Later, when changes in environmental demands again favored mobility as beneficial or even essential for survival, the descendants of the sessile crinoids gave up their sedentary lifestyle and apparently developed a new mobility. This included the ability to perceive and respond to environmental stimuli. However, these species were restricted by their current anatomical structures; body structures they had abandoned in the course of evolution were lost. For example, it was not possible to develop the complex eyes that other animal groups had. So echinoderms had to find their own solutions for these challenges of their environment. One example of this is the peculiar visual organs that have recently been discovered in brittle stars. Although they do not have eyes in the conventional sense, they are able to distinguish between light and dark—for instance, they can detect a shadow cast by an approaching predator and escape into a rock crack. Their development took a very unusual path, as was first demonstrated by Ophiocoma wendtii (Addadi, et al., 2001). From this research, we know that O. wendtii controls the formation of crystalline structures using specific proteins. These crystals are arranged in the skeletal elements in spherical groups. They focus the light without scattering like a tiny lens and concentrate it approximately 50 times in the focal point. Passing the light on to photoreceptors, the nervous system thereby receives a corresponding stimulus. In this way, brittle stars register brightness without eyes. Aquarium care Today the trade offers numerous species, not just the few large ones found in the 1980s and 1990s (e.g. Ophiarachna incrassata, Ophiolepis superba, and the bright red Caribbean species Ophioderma squamosissimus). Very often, you will find small brittle star species that reproduce spontaneously and form very dense populations under appropriate conditions. Mostly, however, they inadvertently get into the tank along with corals. One example is Ophiocoma pumila, which shows a characteristic red striation on the arms and reaches about 2.4 inches (6 cm), but other smaller species are also common. In the aquarium, Ophiocoma pumila releases sperm a few weeks after vegetative propagation. Most brittle star species are unproblematic in the aquarium, but there are some exceptions. Feeding is very easy, because they are usually carnivorous and also feed on dead animals. Fine suspended particles attach directly to the tube feet, while larger chunks are grabbed with the tip of the arm and transported to the mouth opening by rolling up the entire arm. Many brittle stars can open wide and deform their oral discs in order to swallow large chunks. When adding a specimen to the aquarium, one should always proceed with caution. As with all echinoderms, slow adaptation to the aquarium water is important. Brittle stars also tend to sacrifice individual arms when threatened. A severed arm can go on moving for hours. This appears to distract the attention of a predator from the fleeing brittle star. Although a lost arm soon regenerates under good nutritional conditions, such a loss should still be avoided. Astrobrachion constrictum on Diodogorgia nodulifera. Especially the small species are fascinating aquarium guests, as they increase biodiversity. They are commonly found in many reef tanks. Especially if there are no specialized predators, brittle stars multiply quickly by vegetative propagation to form individual-rich populations. However, they mostly live hidden and are rarely seen—so many aquarists have no idea how many live in their tanks. A mass spawning event, when the animals compete for the best spot to release their germ cells, provides a rare opportunity to observe the entire population at the same time. On Internet forums, people sometimes refer to brittle stars as pests. These individuals use brittle star “wedding events”—spawns—to collect the animals in large numbers and dispose of them. This is absurd and wasteful. Those who do not want these fascinating echinoderms in their aquariums should pass them to others. Their mass occurrence alone is no burden for a reef tank, as long as no visible damage can be unambiguously attributed to them. In general, these scavengers live so much in secrecy that you barely notice their presence. At night, Astroboa granulatus spreads his arms like a crown to filter planktonic organisms from the water. The lower arms also probe the substrate and live corals, looking for prey. In terms of diet, one of the exceptions mentioned is the quite popular and regularly offered Green Brittle Star (Ophiarachna incrassata, see below). It can even multiply in the aquarium. This species is known to attack soft corals and fishes, but only when it is underfed—if regularly fed a chunk of fish twice a week, it should not pose any problems. Brittle star species for the aquarium Within the animal phylum Echinodermata (sea urchins, starfishes, sea cucumbers, and others), the brittle stars belong to the class Ophiuroidea. Ophiuroidea consists of the three orders Ophiurida, Oegophiurida, and Euryalida (or Phrynophiurida) that contain 17 families with about 250 genera. A total of around 2,000 species are known, making this class of animals the most diverse of echinoderms. Most brittle stars interesting to aquarium hobbyists belong to the first of these three orders: Ophiurida. There we find the genera Ophiarachna, Ophiocoma, Ophioderma, Ophiolepis, Ophiothrix, and Ophiomastix, the small Amphipholis, and other small representatives of the families Amphiuridae and Ophiotrichidae. Red Serpent Star (Ophioderma squamosissimus). Very peculiar brittle stars are found in the third order, Euryalida. They are more primitive than any other brittle stars and are mainly characterized by their smooth, spineless arms. In addition, they live closely tied to specific invertebrate host animals. Their arms are usually much shorter in relation to their bodies than animals in the other two orders, and the whole body is covered with a slimy secretion. These unusual brittle stars appear occasionally in the trade as members of the genus Astrobrachion, e.g. A. constrictum. However, they are an absolute rarity and so inconspicuous that they are found only through a targeted search. In addition to these small species, the order contains the family Gorgonocephalidae, large brittle stars with highly branched arms. They look particularly impressive at night, when they spread their arms into a semi-spherical basket shape to catch planktonic food. Banded Brittle Star (Ophiolepis superba). The vast majority of brittle star species that we find in the trade belong to the order Ophiurida. The genus Ophioderma (family Ophiuridae) contains the Red Serpent Star (Ophioderma squamosissimus), one of the most beautiful species with its orange-red coloration. Its range extends from the Bahamas to Belize. The maximum span of the Red Serpent Star is 16 inches (40 cm), although it doesn’t usually grow that big in the aquarium. Its appetite is similar to that of the Green Brittle Star (see below)—it, too, is an omnivorous opportunist that must be fed well and regularly. Any replacement food, such as food tablets or chunks of food fish, will be greedily accepted. Because the Red Serpent Star is active during the day as well as at night, it is ideal for the coral reef aquarium. The genus Ophiolepis (family Ophiodermatidae) contains the Banded Brittle Star (Ophiolepis superba), another very pretty species. It wears brown bands on a light beige background; these bands extend all over the arms, and the round body disc has a brown star. The distribution area extends over the entire Indo-Pacific, from the Red Sea and East Africa to the Pacific Islands. The span of this species can reach almost 10 inches (25 cm). With regular feeding, this normally nocturnal brittle star can get used to looking for food even during the day. It is omnivorous and searches sediments for organic leftovers. This species is robust and ideal for a coral reef aquarium. Green Brittle Star (Ophiarachna incrassata). The Green Brittle Star (Ophiarachna incrassata) also belongs to the family Ophiodermatidae. It is durable and easy to care for. It is similar to the two species mentioned above, but far more opportunistic when searching for food. If threatened by food shortages it will even graze on Xenia. The brittle star lowers its mouth disc onto a soft coral, engulfing it with its stomach cavity, and then lifts the entire body, ripping off part of the coral. If they have to dig even deeper into their bag of tricks to survive, they will even catch small, sleeping fishes between their arms at night. However, if they are sufficiently fed with a food table or piece of food fish twice a week, they will hardly cause any damage in the aquarium. A hungry Green Brittle Star puts his body up at night like a cage to catch small, sleepy fishes. Ophiarachna incrassata has reproduced several times in the aquarium, but this seems to be coupled to an optimal diet. Dr. Jochen Lohner kept two large Green Brittle Stars in an aquarium, and when he took it apart after a few years he found 13 adult specimens. The representatives of the genus Ophiomastix (family Ophiocomidae) are somewhat more delicate than the species listed above, and they have a very typical shape. The arms have conspicuous spines, and if you look closely you can see that many of the spines have a club shape. Many of these species have a nice color and reach a maximum size of approximately 12 inches (30 cm). They are easy to care for, harmless, and a real asset to the coral reef aquarium. They might graze on very delicate sessile invertebrates, such as small sea squirts, but they do not touch corals. This Ophiomastix annulosa arm shows the white stripes on the dark topside. The spines are striped black, some shaped like a club. Ophiomastix variabilis also has club-shaped spines. The black arms sport bands of white. The family Amphiuridae contains numerous small species that vegetatively reproduce in the aquarium. In the absence of specialized predators they can create very individual-rich populations. They are found in sediments, cracks, and crevices, or at the bottom of stony corals, under sponges, algae, or other places where they like to rest and let some of their arms hang in the open water. When they discover suspended food in the water, they begin to wave with their arms or even come completely out of hiding. One of these genera is Amphiura. Amphiura specimens on Caribbean sponges in the aquarium. Representatives of the genus Amphipholis represent the smallest known brittle stars and reproduce well in the aquarium. At least one of the currently 25 species appears occasionally in the trade: Amphipholis squamata. Found in tropical and subtropical seas around the world, it reaches about 12 mm (0.5 in). The body disc measures no more than about 2 mm. These tiny brittle stars live mainly in fine sediments and can generate huge populations in the aquarium. The aquarist gets to see them only when cleaning a filter or moving rock and underlying fine sediments. These brittle stars reproduce vegetatively by division, which can be seen on those specimens that have different arm lengths because they regenerate lost arms. The maximum span of these Amphiura specimens is approximately 1 inch (2.5 cm). Amphipholis squamata with a total span of 0.4 inch (1 cm). Many tropical species that are not too large are also found in the family Ophiotrichidae. However, in contrast to the Amphiuridae, they are closely tied to sessile invertebrates such as corals and sponges, on which they live as commensals. An example is the genus Ophiothrix, containing some species with characteristic appearance. The coloration is very variable and species-specific, probably in adaptation to each host. The arms are densely covered with long spines, and the size in most species is 4–8 inches (10–20 cm). Naturally, you meet these attractive brittle stars on sessile invertebrates, like sponges. They hide in their gaps or cracks and at night scour the surface thoroughly, looking for something to eat. Distribution areas, depending on the species, are the entire western Indo-Pacific or the Caribbean. When Amphipholis squamata mate, their entire oral sides come in contact. Smaller still are the representatives of the genus Ophiothela, who live primarily on sessile invertebrates such as sea fans and sea pens. The size of this animal’s mouth disc is 2–3 mm, and the arm length ranges from 0.4 to 6 inch (10–15 mm). We usually see these brittle stars clinging with their striated arms to the branches of their host corals. With food suspended in the water, they stretch their individual arms into open water and spread their tiny tube feet, which often have a feathery structure to increase the surface area. The distribution area of the six known species covers the entire Indian Ocean and Western Central Pacific, from East Africa to the islands of the South Pacific. Ophiothrix suensonii on Swiftia exserta. Unfortunately, these attractive brittle stars are almost never purposely imported. They appear in the trade only as hitchhikers on their host corals, and you have to specifically look for them. In the aquarium, they need fine suspension food and absorb even dissolved substances from the water. However, they only survive if the food is available daily for a very long time. One or two suspension feedings per day is not enough. Ophiothrix sp. on Dendronephthya sp. The 22 species of the family Ophiocomidae are usually significantly larger than the above. In the aquarium, we encounter mainly Ophiocoma pumila; it has a fairly typical appearance, with its reddish body disc and red-striped arms. If you look closely, you can see greenish elements between the red marks, and both have the same fine line pattern. The number of arms is five or six. When they sense fine suspension food in the tank, the animals stretch their arms into the open water. This small Ophiothela species reproduces well in Till Deuss’s aquarium. Ophiocoma pumila can develop very individual-rich populations in the absence of specialized predators. Their reproduction in the aquarium is vegetative through partition, and occasionally you can see specimens with only three long arms after the separation of the body disc. However, the opposite side, with three short arms, is just regenerating. Since there are always three long arms, it is conceivable that only six-armed specimens divide. Ophiocoma pumila hiding between a powerhead and the aquarium wall. Especially the propagation of these small brittle stars makes their aquarium care fascinating. And as seen in the previous article, the normally hidden brittle stars can occasionally be observed en masse during spawning. References Addadi, L., J. Aizenberg, A. Tkachenko, S. Weiner, & G. Hendler. 2001. Brittlestar optics: Calcitic microlenses as part of the photoreceptor system. Nature 412: 819–822. Knop. D. (in press): Lexikon der Meeresaquaristik. Natur und Tier Verlag, Münster, Germany.

Sea Shepherd Launches Anti-Aquarium Trade Campaign in Hawaii

Sea Shepherd Vice-President Robert Wintner is a veteran campaigner against the aquarium trade and what he claims are its “devastating impact” on Hawaii reefs. Photo: Deborah Bassett / Sea Shepherd Originally Posted on May 14, 2013 By Ret Talbot, CORAL Magazine Senior Editor Today the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society launched Operation Reef Defense, a campaign spearheaded by Sea Shepherd Vice-President Robert Wintner to shut down marine aquarium fisheries. In the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Coral Magazine, I wrote an article called “Postcards from Hawaii” in which I looked at the past, present and future of Hawaii’s marine aquarium fisheries. In researching the article, I sat down with a lot of people, including Wintner. The Sea Shepherd website had recently published his essay entitled “The Dark Hobby; Can We Stop the Devastating Impact of Home Aquaria on Reefs Worldwide?” on its website, and this single action, especially given the popularity of Sea Shepherd’s “Whale Wars” television series with aquarists, made Wintner a household name with many on the mainland. I wrote: When the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Society published his essay…it was greeted with perfunctory expletives by many in the Hawaiian Islands familiar with his crusade. More than a few concerned aquarists, on the other hand, wanted to know if Wintner’s claim that the aquarium trade aggressively and irresponsibly overharvests fish in Hawaii was factual. More than one asked questions in this vein: “If the trade isn’t sustainable in Hawaii, how can it be sustainable in developing island nations where oversight and regulation is not what it is in the U.S.?” My interview with Wintner was enlightening. Through it, I came to realize that, when pushed, Wintner was not really interested in looking at the data and discussing the sustainability of the marine aquarium fishery in Hawaii because, quite simply, he refuses to view it as a fishery. Here’s the way I summed up my exchange with Wintner in the article in Coral: Wintner and I sat down at a Starbucks on the Dairy Road not far from the airport to discuss the trade. Wintner begins by telling me his own story; this campaign against the aquarium trade is, after all, deeply personal for him. Wintner’s argument is primarily rooted in his own experience diving the reefs of Maui. He tells me there was once “an abundance of fish” in Hawaii. Now the “aquarium hunters” have diminished that abundance. “Aquarium hunters have oppressed Hawaii’s reefs for years,” he says. “With no limit on catch or number of catchers.” If it doesn’t stop, Wintner contends, there will be no fish left. “Ninety-eight percent of Hawaii’s reefs can be emptied of every fish by the aquarium trade, and it’s legal.” I proffer that this is an exaggeration not based in fact. For example, 35% of the reefs on the Big Island of Hawaii, which is where the aquarium trade is concentrated, are completely off-limits to livestock collectors. I suggest that this is hyperbole in the service of his ends, but Wintner remains firm. “They can do whatever they want,” he says. What about the permitting and reporting system? I ask. “Anyone with Internet access and 50 bucks can get a permit…and there are huge discrepancies between reported catch and actual catch,” Wintner counters. “The Division of Aquatic Resources [DAR] has admitted that the report of catch of 1 to 2 million fish per year is off by a factor of two to five times.” DAR’s published numbers do not bear any resemblance to those Wintner attributes to them. But still, I continue, the fishery is managed by the state to be sustainable, right? “A state agency manages the trade as a ‘fishery,’ and [the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR)] calls the aquarium trade ‘sustainable,’” Wintner admits, “but it’s really nothing more than disposable wildlife pet trafficking for the money. By sustainable the DLNR means taking all but a few brood fish so the species won’t collapse.” I have reams of data from marine scientists in my notebook on the table between us that clearly refute Wintner’s claims. While there are myriad ways to interpret the data, there is no scenario in which any one species has been overfished to the point where only a few brood fish remain. Based on my reading of the data, and the interviews I have already conducted, I suspect that the fishery needs to be better managed if it is to continue to be both robust and sustainable, but what I’m really interested in knowing is whether or not Wintner thinks the fishery itself is unsustainable at present. “Sustainability ignores the ethical issue,” Wintner responds. And that’s when I get it. Debating whether or not the marine aquarium fishery is sustainable is not an option with Wintner because he doesn’t agree to use the accepted language of fisheries management when it comes to marine aquarium fishes. For him, this is not about sustainability—it is about morality. As our conversation continues, Wintner won’t even discuss the marine aquarium fishery as a fishery. “We don’t use the ‘f word,” he says, referring to fishing. “This isn’t fishing. Fishing is about sustenance. This is wildlife trafficking for the pet trade, and people shouldn’t keep wild animals. This is a crime against nature being committed in Hawaii,” he says. “I am here because I have a relationship with fish…It’s a moral issue.” As I drive the road to Hana later that day to meet with a cultural practitioner, I think back over my conversation with Wintner. His arguments are about ethics and morality. They are about his own individual relationships with fishes, not unlike the relationship between the girl and the Crosshatch Triggerfish I observed at the Waikiki Aquarium. I can respect that, even if I don’t agree with his position. That said, it is important to understand that Wintner is not making an argument against the so-called “trop” or AQ fishery, for, by his own admission, he does not acknowledge the existence of a marine aquarium fishery. While he sometimes uses data—hard numbers—to support his position, when pushed he always comes back to his central premise: the marine aquarium trade is immoral. I share this blast from the past with you today because I think my findings in 2010 regarding Wintner and his motivations and strategy hold true today, and it makes me very suspect of Operation Reef Defense. I have spent a lot of time in Hawaii since that article was published. I have spent countless hours with fisheries biologists and fishers, environmentalists and politicians. In short, I have immersed myself in researching the aquarium fishery in Hawaii and its continued path to becoming more transparent, better regulated and, ultimately, sustainable. Without getting into the specifics here, I can say with great confidence that the best available science does not support Wintner’s claims about the State’s aquarium fishery. Further, if the claims being made about the aquarium fishery were true, we should be very worried about other far larger fisheries in Hawaii that lack the data to demonstrate sustainability and the regulation to insure it. As I said back in 2011, and I’ll say again now, if Wintner believes keeping an animal in an aquarium is immoral, I can respect that. If he wants to make an argument that the aquarium trade should be banned because the act of collecting an animal and putting it in an aquarium is immoral, I can respect that. What I can’t respect is ignoring the best available science. What I can’t respect is attempting to railroad a constructive multi-stakeholder process and a larger dialog about sustainability within aquarium fisheries worldwide in order to further one’s own ethical agenda. Like many of the fisheries about which I write, aquarium fisheries are far from perfect, but they are also not the monster Wintner makes them out to be. I have seen first hand, for example, how sustainable aquarium fisheries around the world can play a critical role in conserving reef ecosystems, supporting coastal villages and maintaining cultural identities and connectedness to critical resources. There are those who will say that I’m off on a tangent here. They will say that Operation Reef Defense is not about simply attacking the aquarium trade. After all, the press release issued today announcing Operation Reef Defense states the campaign is “a global campaign to end the destruction of coral reefs and the many threats they face worldwide,” right? Wrong. Look at the images on the website (see screenshot pictured here), and consider the emphasis on aquarium fisheries versus other anthropogenic stressors to coral reefs. If this campaign was really about defending reefs against the most significant impacts, wouldn’t we see pictures of terrestrial runoff, coastal development, carbon producing machines, and, yes, even mask and snorkel-wielding tourists trampling Hawaii’s reefs? Instead we only see images related to aquarium fishing. Isn’t it clear what’s going on here? My hope would be that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society might take another look at Operation Reef Defense. I think we all know coral reefs worldwide do need defending, and I would invite Sea Shepherd to make this campaign about taking actions that will address the root issues, not further the agenda of an individual. If that were the case, I suspect more than one aquarist would become an ally in helping Sea Shepherd defend the world’s reefs, while at the same time insuring the marine aquarium fisheries on which their hobby depends continue to become truly sustainable fisheries that create real economic incentive to conserve and continue to inspire millions to care about that which lies just beneath the surface. Read Ret Talbot’s Blog from Maine

Back from the Dead: Remote Reef Recovers

10 Apr, 2013 Coral patch in the Scott Reef area of northwestern Australia, now showing strong recovery from a devastating 1998 bleaching event. Credit: N. Thake. Contrary to popular wisdom, coral reefs in remote areas have the potential to rebound from bleaching events and in time frames that marine biologists find astonishing. Isolated coral reefs can recover from catastrophic damage as effectively as those with nearby undisturbed neighbours, a long-term study by marine biologists from the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (CoECRS) has shown. Scott Reef, a remote coral system in the Indian Ocean, has largely recovered from a catastrophic mass bleaching event in 1998, according to the study published in the journal Science. Following the bleaching event in 1998, 70-90% of stony corals were killed in the Scott Reef area 300 km off northwest Australia. Credit: L. Smith. The study challenges widely accepted theory that suggested isolated reefs were more vulnerable to disturbance, because they were thought to depend on recolonisation from other reefs. Instead, the scientists found that the isolation of reefs allowed surviving corals to rapidly grow and propagate in the absence of human interference. Australia’s largest oceanic reef system, Scott Reef, is relatively isolated, sitting out in the Indian Ocean some 250 km from the remote coastline of north Western Australia (WA). Prospects for the reef looked gloomy when in 1998 it suffered catastrophic mass bleaching, losing around 80% of its coral cover. The study shows that it took just 12 years to recover. Scott Reef lies 300 km off northwestern Australia and is a group of atolls in the Timor Sea. Credit: Carto ANU Spanning 15 years, data collected and analysed by the researchers shows how after the 1998 mass bleaching the few remaining corals provided low numbers of recruits (new corals) for Scott Reef. On that basis recovery was projected to take decades, yet within 12 years the cover and diversity of corals had recovered to levels similar to those seen pre-bleaching. “The initial projections for Scott Reef were not optimistic,” says Dr James Gilmour from AIMS, the lead author on the publication, “because, unlike reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, there were few if any reefs nearby capable of supplying new recruits to replenish the lost corals at Scott Reef. “However, the few small corals that did settle at Scott Reef had excellent rates of survival and growth, whereas on many nearshore reefs high levels of algae and sediment, and poor water quality will often suppress this recovery. “We know from other studies that the resilience of reefs can be improved by addressing human pressures such as water quality and overfishing,” says Dr Gilmour. “So it is likely that a key factor in the rapid recovery at Scott Reef was the high water clarity and quality in this remote and offshore location.” Dr Andrew Heyward, Principal Research Scientist at AIMS, highlights another conclusion from their findings. “Previously we’ve tended to factor proximity to other reefs as a key attribute when estimating the resilience of a reef following a major disturbance, but our data suggests that given the right conditions, reefs might do much of the recovery by themselves.” This finding could have implications for the management of marine protected areas. In their publication the team also draws attention to the important role played by climate change in the longer-term prospects for coral reefs, as Prof Morgan Pratchett of CoECRS explains. Scott Reef had largely recovered from a catastrophic mass bleaching of corals within twelve years of the disturbance, despite the lack of connectivity to other reefs in the region. The rate of recovery was attributed to the lack of many local anthropogenic pressures affecting reefs around the world, such as degraded water quality and overfishing of herbivores (credit: N Thake). “While it is encouraging to see such clear recovery, we need to be mindful of the fact that the coral recovery at Scott Reef still took over a decade. If, as the climate change trend suggests, we start to see coral bleaching and other related disturbances occurring more frequently, then reefs may experience a ratcheting down effect, never fully recovering before they suffer another major disturbance. “By preventing illegal fishing and enhancing water quality on coral reefs in all regions we will give these reefs a greater capacity to recover from major disturbances.” The highly detailed, long-term data set makes Scott Reef the best studied reef in Australia’s Indian Ocean territory. The study provides valuable new perspectives on ecosystem function and resilience of coral reefs situated in the northwest Australia, and in other contexts such as the Great Barrier Reef, and illustrates the importance of AIMS’ research collaborations with its industry partners. CREDIT: From materials released by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Townsville, Queensland. Images provided by Science in Public. The paper “Recovery of an isolated coral reef system following severe disturbance”, by J. P. Gilmour, L. D. Smith, A. J. Heyward, A. H. Baird and M. S. Pratchett was published by the journal Science on 5th April, 2013. Science 5 April 2013Vol. 340 no. 6128 pp. 69-71DOI: 10.1126/science.1232310 ABSTRACT Coral reef recovery from major disturbance is hypothesized to depend on the arrival of propagules from nearby undisturbed reefs. Therefore, reefs isolated by distance or current patterns are thought to be highly vulnerable to catastrophic disturbance. We found that on an isolated reef system in north Western Australia, coral cover increased from 9% to 44% within 12 years of a coral bleaching event, despite a 94% reduction in larval supply for 6 years after the bleaching. The initial increase in coral cover was the result of high rates of growth and survival of remnant colonies, followed by a rapid increase in juvenile recruitment as colonies matured. We show that isolated reefs can recover from major disturbance, and that the benefits of their isolation from chronic anthropogenic pressures can outweigh the costs of limited connectivity. EDITOR’S SUMMARY Reef Repair Coral reefs suffer mass mortality because of coral bleaching, disease, and tropical storms, but we know much more about when, where, and how rapidly these ecosystems have collapsed than we do about their recovery. Gilmour et al. (p. 69; see the Perspective by Polidoro and Carpenter) studied a highly isolated coral reef before and after a climate-induced mass mortality event that killed 70 to 90% of the reef corals. The initial recovery of coral cover involved growth and survival of remnant colonies, which was followed by increases in larval recruitment. Thus, in the absence of chronic disturbance, even isolated reefs can recover from catastrophic disturbance.;jsessionid=BDA4BF70AA0D7EAAAAB8D8F60F53D680