“If you’re looking for someone to blame, you need only look in the mirror.” It’s a common slogan, used to illustrate the reality that we all take part in many of the problems that exist in the world today. Our gluttonous consumption of fossil fuels, seemingly insatiable appetite for seafood and use of petrol products such as plastic, have pushed the environment into a state of fast decline. Here in Maryland many home owners stand in stark opposition to hydraulic fracking, but like an addict seeking a fix, we continue to fill massive tanks full of liquid propane, natural gas and oil – so that our homes can remain a comfortable 70 degrees during winter, without the extended effort of maintaining a fire (which would also release hydrocarbons into the atmosphere). Some become offended at the thought that they play a role in environmental decline, others accept this reality and hope that small changes may contribute to a sea change of thought and practice. In many ways, simply being a human being in the modern world, guarantees that a footprint of some form will be left upon the Earth. Many of us try to balance that scale by contributing more good to the world around us, than bad.
As we face ESA regulations, a reality that has sent the marine aquarium industry into an uproar, how does the statement above factor into the events that have led here. There are many factors leading up to possible no-take, no-keep regulations. One being that the endangered species act is being used as a tool to combat climate change. Without adequate measures to curb and control climate change, organizations like the Center for Biodiversity are pointing at individual species to be preserved, when a changing climate is the primary stressor placed upon them. Are individual aquarists in some way responsible for our current predicament?
Shouldering the blame:
I got involved in the marine aquarium hobby at the age of 15, a long time ago in a not so-far away galaxy. I began writing for various publications surrounding the aquarium world not long after, when I was around 18 or 19 and just starting college. Since then the growth of the reef aquarium hobby has been tremendous. Methodology changed, equipment changed, the production of corals by private aquarists skyrocketed. The demand for rare and unique corals grew and grew. Coral life forms that you couldn’t give to someone were suddenly worth hundreds of dollars. Suddenly people were trying to make a living off every aspect of marine aquariums, from livestock sales on up to installation and management of monstrous aquarium systems. The marine aquarium hobby transformed from humble beginnings, into a bona fide industry. In that massive progression, it lost some its uniqueness, the feeling that as a marine aquarist you were part of a small group of enduring pioneers. Suddenly everyone had a reef and every company had a tonic that could create a beautiful aquarium. Large corporations were producing all types of equipment and additives solely for marine aquariums and every few months some new technology was introduced.
There have been a lot of, as Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, “focusing on could we do it, rather than should we do it” moments in the history of reef aquariums. Perhaps advanced aquarists pushed too far in their pursuit of Holy Grail species and trophy corals. One area that comes to mind is the collection of deep water species, a practice that leads to fizzing which punctures a fish’s swim bladder to release pressure. This method of collection has led to many fish deaths, due to infection or improper procedure.
We all share to some extent the blame in possibly over-using a resource for our own personal enjoyment. No matter how many times we tell ourselves we’re doing good work in our hobby, at the end of the day, we do it because we like it. When Julian Sprung joked during his MACNA 2014 presentation that “corals may love us,” I had to think, no they probably hate us.
Individual aquarist’s role:
If you focus on individual aquarists, the common people that enter a fish store or hop online, it’s surprising to see what you find. Many have little knowledge about oceanic ecosystems, or how the planet’s health is connected to bio-diversity on coral reefs. They don’t understand that while tropical reefs make up only 25% of oceanic real estate, they serve as home to 80% of the animals within the ocean. Some individual aquarists buying their first damselfish or clownfish would be surprised to learn that since the industrial revolution, coral reefs have declined nearly 80% with large pelagic fish populations dropping nearly 90%. A total collapse of worldwide fisheries is reported to occur sometime in the next fifty years. If current trends continue, it’s possible in far less than 100 years; coral reefs will be gone, transformed into sprawling acres of turf algae. The ocean we’ve known as a bastion of diverse life, the rainforests of the sea will be a massive worldwide dead zone – and scientists haven’t much clue what that means for life on earth.
Some of it is simply not researching species before they are bought, or overstocking an aquarium or keeping incompatible species. Being lazy and not managing water quality plays a role, so does running an aquarium on the cheap and denying your animals adequate filtration (a reality I’ve often faced when advising new aquarists). Whether folks want to admit it or not, the oversized aquariums seen on shows liked Tanked, ranging from 1,000 gallons into the tens of thousands play a role. Stocking these tanks places a high demand on reef resources and increases the amount of animals taken from the ocean. As a species, humans are never satisfied. A nano-reef isn’t enough, neither is a moderate sized one and most of us (me included) suffer from multiple tank syndrome. Doing business with poor and irresponsible vendors plays a role, as it imports fish which have been captured using ecologically harmful techniques. A desire to keep animals outside your skill set it a big one, simply because it almost always ends in failure, repeat, failure repeat – until the aquarist either goes broke or simply keeps going. As a community of hobbyists, we marvel at 20,000-30,000 gallon aquariums and praise their keepers, without giving much thought to the effect on the planet at large, or what it does to an already failing industries’ ability to track collection.
From the very best of the marine aquarium community, down to the very worst – we all play an important individual role in assuming responsibility for the current state of both the industry and hobby. We may not like to admit it, or even believe it for that matter, but look long and hard enough at the history, at the evidence and reality shines through. Spend enough time talking to new, intermediate or up and coming aquarists, ask about their successes and failures – trust me, the picture paints itself.
What’s your point?
I write this not to condemn my fellow marine aquarists. Not to issue a scathing review of myself or anyone else. We are all human beings, curious creatures fascinated with something different and unique. Any successful aquarist has accepted challenge and met it, embracing a process of learning and understanding on some level basic scientific concepts. It’s not a bad thing to progress, in fact it’s what most of us aspire to do. I write this because I see, in the face of potential regulation, the marine aquarium community turning into a stone throwing mob. They slam the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Marine Fisheries Service, NOAA and any institution that seeks to provide coral animals with protected status. Some aquarists have offered sharp criticism of other industries that benefit from coral reefs, such as dive tourism. I’ve heard the terms liberal, tree-hugger, hippie and many others tossed around forums in discussions about preserving coral reefs. I’ve even had some tender hearted reef right fighters shoot those terms into my email inbox. Some reef keepers have directly blamed President Obama, others throw stones at the Sierra Club along with other conservation groups. Most of the public commentary I’ve read regarding this hobby and industries’ future carries the same tone as the aquarist who keeps a surgeonfish in a nano-tank. It lacks any understanding of the situation at hand and releases any and all personal responsibility as an individual.
As a practicing Buddhist I understand well the doctrine of suffering. If you stare at the web of life, suddenly you realize that each one of us is connected, tethered to one another in ways previously unimaginable. Once you get that reality out of the way, you can begin to understand that working together through understanding and compassion certainly provides better results than holding onto bitter, unfounded prejudice. Guess what, not matter what degree of aquarist you are, you are far from perfect. Neither is the collector who nets your fish, the wholesaler who imports them, or the vendor who sold them to you. The scientist who developed the methodology you follow isn’t perfect either, nor is the NOAA researcher who claims the corals you keep are endangered. The attorney at the Center for Biodiversity that filed a petition to have corals considered threatened or endangered, they haven’t attained perfection. We all make mistakes, but as a community, we are failing to learn from them and at this point, even recognize we made them.
Together, we create a communal of individuals who have come to appreciate the intrinsic value of marine animals. We may differ in how we appreciate them, with some preferring to leave them alone, while others may wish to propagate them; we all share that very common and unifying bond. Every time someone spews misinformation, an arrogant remark or resorts to calling their fellow reef lover a hippie or liberal – we take five steps back in deciding just how to proceed forward during this emotionally charged time. I challenge each aquarist to look at their practices, improve them and learn from past mistakes. I also challenge each aquarist to understand the ocean at large, how it affects every being on this planet every second of each day. Once you have done that, it may be possible to understand the ideals of those who see marine aquarists as abusers of the wild. Most importantly, I ask my fellow aquarists to act with restraint. Just because you can do something, doesn’t always mean that you should.