Taking a look in the mirror…

by | Feb 24, 2015 | Science | 4 comments

Obama family arrives at US Capitol prior to inauguration swear-in“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:

V-for-Vendetta-v-for-vendetta-13512847-1920-1200I 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:

Photo0555If 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?

IMG_8045[1] reef tankI 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.

IMG_8796smTogether, 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.


  • Jeremy Gosnell

    Jeremy Gosnell has been an aquarist for nearly all of his life. While studying sociology in college, he began writing for Freshwater and Marine Aquarium Magazine, moving over to Fish Channel and Aquarium Fish International in 2005. In 2008 he began composing feature articles for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and today serves as TFH's monthly saltwater Q&A writer, and is a member of the peer review content editorial board.After becoming a PADI certified dive master and specialty instructor, Jeremy trained with the Beautiful Oceans Academy as a science diver, specializing in coral reef biology, ecosystems and food chain hierarchies. He worked with Beautiful Oceans to promote scientific diving and underwater GPS coral reef mapping and bio-diversity studies for both scientific study and recreational dive charters.He holds various scuba related certifications including PADI master scuba diver, dive master, specialty instructor, DAN dive emergency specialist, marine wildlife injury specialist and several TECH REC technical certifications, including deep water diving, re-breather diving and cave diving.In his spare time Jeremy is a science fiction writer, and his debut novel Neptune's Garden was released in 2010. His second novel is being released later in 2015. Both books are oceanic in nature, exploring the existence of the mythical kingdom of Atlantis, from a scientific viewpoint.

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  1. Alex

    It’s a nice opinion piece, but looking at the data coral imports have actually gone down and not increased: http://www.bioflux.com.ro/docs/AACL_5.2.8.pdf – the same goes for live rock.
    Yes we should think before we buy an animal and yes we should consider the effects our hobby might have on the environment, but by making too broad statements things might be blown out of proportion and we end up making decisions not based on facts but on feelings or even worse fearmongering.

  2. Jeremy Gosnell

    Alex. The data regarding coral import does show a decrease, and this is largely due to captive propagation (which is a good thing). The reality is that long before captive propagation, cyanide collection and destructive practices led to a lot of irreversible reef damage. While fish are currently off the ESA’s table, it’s of great value for all of us to factor them into this equation. I mentioned that the ESA is being used as a tool to promote climate change based legislation. No world government has really figured out how to regulate climate change. Because of this, conservation organizations are flagging individual species for ESA protection, which is really all or nothing legislation. It’s my prediction in that the near future, fish species that are wild caught for reef aquariums will be flagged for ESA protection, when their largest threat is likely over-fishing and climate change. That won’t matter, if they get ESA status, it’s unlikely we will be able to keep them. My goal with this is to encourage aquarists not to point fingers or pass blame to other groups of people that enjoy coral reefs (the dive industry, tourism at large, etc). It’s counter-productive. I feel it’s vital that we each accept some degree of responsibility as aquarists and admit that we aren’t perfect and at some point, have contributed to the loss of something harvested from a wild eco-system. Moving forward, it’s important to identify ways to decrease the massive number of collected animals (primarily fish) that die before reaching an aquarist’s tank, or shortly thereafter. When legislation is passed, it’s not uncommon for there to be a mixture of facts and emotion propelling it forward. Humans, by are very nature, are emotional creatures that act on what we feel, sometimes in the face of hard evidence. If individuals looks at their personal practices related to keeping an aquarium, and always strive to improve them not on the basis of bigger is better, but healthy and thriving is better – we can begin to make a difference, or at least attain a higher degree of long term success. While coral imports from the wild may have reduced, our hobby really does rely on wild collection to generate a diversity of corals offered to aquarists. Live rock import has decreased since there are a bevy of man-made live rock products, equally in quality to wild collected (another good thing). I refer in this piece to the massive group of aquarists who for many of us are unseen. I have met many of these folks over the years, aiding them in better aquarium husbandry and some simply are in a total haze of misunderstanding and misinformation about reef aquaria.

    • Alex

      Thank you for your answer, Jeremy! I agree that there is definitely a lot that can and should be done to improve the trade and hobby (and everything involved) especially because we are talking about live animals and a whole ecosystem that is endangered (though I would argue not to a great extend due to our hobby if you factor in climate change, industrial pollution, eutrophication, mariculture in less developed regions etc.). But you are right – every bit helps and we should definitely strive for sustainability and maybe even more.

      Our impact on the environment is just a very hard thing to assess in general and very much different to our daily perceptions as hobbyists and animal lovers. So for example even though 9 out of 10 Moorish Idols might die in our tanks (which is a very unnecessary and cruel thing), those 10 removed fish might have much less impact on the reef community than a single removed cleaner wrasse. (I am not promoting keeping Zanclus sp. btw., not only because they are not reef safe 😉 ) So while looking at things from different perspectives is valuable, mixing concepts isn’t always the best way to go about things. Good husbandry doesn’t automatically equal less harm to the environment. A hobbyist giving up his tank after a month when his 5 fish died might have less impact than a knowledgeable reef expert that buys hundreds of animals over the years and whose fish lead happy lives in tanks that use electricity like no tomorrow. If we can get the successful hobbyist to act more sustainable then that’s the thing we should definitely strive to do, but as I said I think it counterproductive to mix concepts here because one might come to the wrong conclusions or draw connections in the wrong places.

      All in all it’s a very, very interesting and important matter you talk about (thank you for that), and it’s one with a lot of grey areas and even more blank spots so it’s important to clearly state what we know and what we don’t know, what is known fact and what is conjecture.

  3. Jeremy Gosnell

    Alex. It is highly likely that climate change plays a much greater role in criteria that has allowed 20 coral species to be listed at threatened, over the actions of the marine aquarium industry. As I mentioned, in the absence of effective climate change regulation, conservation outlets are turning to the ESA’s protection of individual species to address species loss due to climate change. Although, once a species is flagged for ESA protection, any and all harvest of said species becomes an area of question. There are massive blackholes of data regarding the activities of private aquarists, import amounts, collection techniques, etc, etc. A great start would be working to make sure every animal sold for marine aquariums was sustainably collected. It would be wishful thinking to assume everyone who purchases marine life for an aquarium is going to self-regulate sustainability, so if systems were in place to make sure that collection was already sustainable, along with measures to collect import and sales data, that would be a good first step. Many aquarists argument about restraint in size and stocking of aquariums is the free market and individual freedom. They are absolutely correct, we have such individual freedoms and if we can afford a massive aquarium and lots of marine animals we are able to purchase them. What is frustrating is that many of those same aquarists push responsibility for any environmental related issue onto someone else, or another industry altogether. It is like driving a very large, gas guzzler and attempting to say your lifestyle has nothing to do with America’s relentless consumption of fossil fuels, when in reality a smaller more fuel efficient car would serve your needs just fine. For many, I think first they have to admit that there is a problem with the health of the oceans today – and that like it or not, marine aquariums (however significant or insignificant) are being rolled in as a contributor to these growing problems. Personally I think if NMFS decides to ban all sale, trade, etc of these threatened species, it may have backfire consequences. It doesn’t really matter though, and this serves as a text book case of a conservation outlet using ESA protection on individual species protection, who have been mostly damaged by climate change.


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