I’ve been sitting on this post for a few months as it fermented and festered in my brain. In the past couple of years anti-aquarium activists in Hawaii have been leading a charge against the fishery that harvests wild marine fish from Hawaii’s coastal waters for use in aquariums. I should first offer a kind word, because after all, they do very much care about the reef and the life that lives there, and they are doing what they genuinely believe is the right thing to do. The problem? It’s not actually the right thing to do, yet they seem to be gaining momentum, and from what I’ve heard their efforts aren’t going to end in Hawaii. Hawaii, my friends, is just the beginning. It is the star player, and if they can take it down, the rest falls easily. And the ultimate goal is far beyond simply stopping the wild harvest of fish for aquariums – if really pressed, the ultimate reality is that no aquarium is a good aquarium. However, it is only the aquarium hobbyist who can be the ultimate savior of the reefs.
The anti-aquarium battle got public attention with “Snorkle Bob” Wintner’s “Dark Hobby” essay, but it has gained momentum by adding another notable voice in Rene Umberger, all under the auspices of the “For The Fishes” organization and the Snorkle Bob Foundation. These activists have succeeded in spawning more independent activists, such as Dr. Gail Gabrowsky of Chaminade University (seen in this youtube video irresponsibly releasing 5 store-bought tangs back into the waters of Hawaii – UPDATE – this video has been made private by the channel operator, but we’ve found mirror copies you should search for). The anti-aquarium effort has also brought attention to organizations like the intensely hypocritical SeaSave organization, a family affair founded by “former aquarium industry insiders” who rally against the industry with truly insane rhetoric.
Yet while railing against the aquarium industry at every turn, SeaSave’s former “insiders” operate what they call an “aquarium rescue”. When you strip away all the “pet rescue” jargon and “if these were puppies” strawmen, SeaSave is actually just another local fish store that takes in animals to “adopt them out” (AKA resells them). SeaSave also actively propagates corals and breeds fish (yes, right now on the homepage the first line is “We have a few of our Tank Raised Bangaii’s for adoption” and they claim to have “the largest breeding colony [of Banggai Cardinalfish] in captivity”). I wish I could directly quote some of the really juicy lines from the Sea Save Facebook page, but I’ve been long since blocked from it for calling them on what I perceive to be utter BS (i.e. there are 1,000,000 aquarium retailers in the US? 10 billion fish dying in the trade each year?). When the math doesn’t add up, it doesn’t add up folks!
And that really hits home the first point point – none of the anti-aquarium activists from anti-trade groups seem terribly concerned with logic and science. Nor are they concerned with the factual inaccuracy of their rhetoric. Whatever data (even if taken out of context) makes the most compelling data, is what they will use. When the truth is inconvenient, they’ll make up their own truth. And it would seem, with 2 of Hawaii’s county councils passing non-binding resolutions to ban the aquarium trade in 2011, the tactics are actually working. Why aren’t political figures, or citizens with a critical eye, crying foul? Quite simply, because in the end fact is irrelevant. The anti-aquarium movement started gaining traction the moment they framed the issue as one of ethics and morals.
Indeed, it seems tough to make a pro-aquarium argument work when we’re talking ethics and morals. It’s even more difficult when your opponents don’t seem terribly concerned with their own ethics and integrity, throwing out morally bankrupt misinformation to justify their moral condemnation. When you weigh the concept that “fish are dying by the billions at the hands of the industry and hobbyists” and “the reef fish are all gone” against selling points like “it’s educational”, “it makes people care about reefs that otherwise wouldn’t have any connection to them”, and maybe even “it’s people’s jobs”, aquariums lose terribly.
When you throw “sustainability” into the mix, you maybe get a little traction. You can make the argument that a healthy, sustainably-managed aquarium fishery creates vested interest in preserving coral reefs where there otherwise wouldn’t be (by creating value for reef fishes that are otherwise worthless to local people). Take away the aquarium fishery in developing nations and people might well be dynamiting the reefs for food, or dredging them up to help create a new port or shipping channel. And that’s great, but Hawaii isn’t a third world country. It has a vibrant tourism industry, so there’s already plenty of “vested interest” in the reefs, monetarily far more than anything the aquarium fishery initially creates. Anti-trade proponents see harvesting marine fish as harming their own industry (largely the dive industry), and not helping to preserve Hawaiian reefs, all the while adding virtually no economic value. It’s a dicey battle, and in this case, the anti-aquarium activists, spearheaded by diving-related individuals, carry the weight of a massively larger economic footprint. So even if you can make a good argument for sustainability creating value in the reefs, you lose out on politics and you haven’t proven any morally redeeming qualities to the activity of harvesting marine fish for aquarium use. The bigger industry simply wins and gets to scapegoat the smaller one in the process, making them look like they did “something”, while ignoring the impact of their own industry and not really addressing any of the main causes for global reef decline.
I credit David Hannan, the keynote banquet speaker at MACNA in 2011, with providing me with the notion that tied up the battle and gave me the answer. You can only win a moral debate on moral grounds, and well, we have it. It is elegantly simple. I’ve been talking about it for years, yet never really thought of it as a moral imperative, or ethical obligation, and yet clear as day, I believe the effort to ultimately completely ban the marine aquarium trade ends here, today. For you see, it is very simple. We, the aquarists of the world, are the modern day Noah’s Ark. We are the only ones with the economic incentive, and the actual capacity, to do something. Anti-aquarium morality police, those of you out there who would tell me straight to my face that keeping fish in aquariums is unethical or immoral, my response is uncharacteristically brief. Take it up with God, ’cause last time I checked, I’m doing God’s work.
Yes, let’s get all rhetorically fundamentalist and religious, since that is so often the source of society’s communal moral and ethical compass. After all, I was raised Lutheran and made sure my son was baptised in a Lutheran church. If I’m honest, though, my “faith” is little more than knowing there’s certainly something intangible out there-but the scientist in me fears that no, really, when you go, you really just go. I don’t know, so I take it on “faith” that no matter what God may be to you, the notion of God probably represents compassion, hard work, putting others first, and in general trying to do the right thing. So what did I really take from being raised Lutheran? Church was the one time per week where we sat down and talked about doing what was right. Not what was in your immediate best interest, but helping others, being generous, and having stewardship for the world. The “love your neighbor” concept doesn’t mean just our “human” neighbors after all.
So, if Snorkle Bob wants to claim some sort of spiritual connection with the fishes, so be it. I certainly do not object. But I’m answering what some might refer to as “God’s call“. I’ve been keeping fish since I was 5 years old and trying to breed them since I was 10 – it’s in my blood. I’m claiming a spiritual imperative, a mandate in my soul, to make sure that even if humankind destroys the reefs, other humans like me can still save everything we can, just as Noah did. These days we know it take more than 2 individuals of each species, and it’s going to take a lot more than simply a big wooden ship. Of course, we may also have to work at captive preservation for centuries. Noah toughed it out for what, half a year?
Yes, for me that moral obligation has manifested itself in the very clear crusade to promote the captive breeding of marine fish and invertebrates. I’ve been toiling at it for years. At times I’ve made my own direct observations and contributions to our breeding knowledge base. These days I’ve found much more of my work coming in the form of writing, promoting, and campaigning for the cause, because it’s a bigger project than any one man can tackle, and depending on which prophecy you wish to believe, we may only have 20 or 50 years before most or all of the coral reefs on the planet are dead and gone.
If we stop keeping our aquariums, where do we expect these coral reefs species to find refuge from extinction? If we really have gone and screwed it all up, it quickly becomes apparent that the question of whether we should or should not collect wild marine fish is a moot point – at some point there may simply be none left to collect even if we wanted to. That’s not to say that we’re doomed, let’s just give up, but it illustrates quite clearly that if the fish, corals, shrimps, crabs, algae, and everything else can’t live in the oceans anymore, the only place left for them to live will be in captivity. The only way to keep them in captivity long term is to breed them. Captive breeding represents the failsafe if everything else goes wrong. And yet, the same people who claim to love the reefs and to want to preserve them fail to see the fact that it is ONLY the aquarium industry that provides the real world economic incentive, and actual physical capacity, to ark any meaningful amount of reef life. These anti-aquarium activists may not even realize that they are actively attempting to tear down the very same ark that others who love the same wild reefs are working tirelessly to build.
And while we’re at it, let me point out that in some versions of Noah’s tale, God even planned for some captive mortality along the way, telling Noah to gather up as many as SEVEN of each of the most important species. Today, species survival programs led by public aquariums and zoos are forced to make hard choices with limited resources, deciding which species are most worthy of saving, and which must be left to fend for themselves. Even GOD knew Noah couldn’t put everything into the ark, and was forced to make difficult choices about the importance of which species took priority in the quest to save His creation from His own wrath.
What’s worse? A world where reef life exists, or one where it doesn’t? I believe the moral and ethical answer to that question is undeniably obvious. So if a world where reef life persists is what we all desire, the rest becomes very simple. Do we guarantee that reef life can persist somewhere with the helping hand of man, or do we gamble that maybe it can fend for itself, with no backup plan? Again, the answers become painfully obvious to me.
Heck, if you want to take a blatantly religious point of view on this, how do we better honor and respect the creator? Do we save as much of His handiwork as we can, or do we fight amongst ourselves while species after species becomes permanently lost to us because we fail to embrace God’s very own species survival plan? He told us to save the animals before, and here again, we have one surefire way to save more. Yes, last time I checked, God is very much pro-preservation. Otherwise, God would’ve told Noah to build a very small ship. And thus, it’s common sense that God must be pro-aquarium (how else do you Ark a fish on land if the ocean is under assault this time around?).
It is not the institutions of the world that today play Noah’s role with any amount of success. In hard, realistic, undeniably factual terms, the freshwater aquarium hobby and industry already serves as the ark for numerous endangered, threatened, or even extinct species. It is not a perfect ark by any means, but it is far better than nothing. Popular species like the Red Tailed Shark (previously thought extinct in the wild, and currently listed as critically endangered), and White Cloud Mountain Minnow (believed extinct in some population, rare in others and listed as data deficient ) will never be lost to this world so long as the aquarium industry continues to propagate them by the millions. With programs like CARES, it is ironically not some big-name institution, or even a commercial entity or industry organization driving the conservation and preservation of some of the most at-risk species. No, it is the humble aquarium hobbyist. The amateur basement scientist. The people for whom fish is a second religion. It is thousands of individual Noahs who heard the call, working independently and in concert, actively trying to prevent many of the “not so pretty” little freshwater fishes from slipping quietly into history.
Some might argue that extinction is the natural way, and while there is certainly truth in that, there is also a moral or ethical obligation to attempt to repair the damage you inflict on another. Even for those of who you fundamentally believe the second coming is around the corner at any moment and ask “what does it really matter?”, I believe I can safely suggest that you still have a duty to be a good shepherd for this planet while you live on it, and it’s very greedy to be inconsiderate to those you may leave behind! With coral reefs under global insult at the hands of man, it is our communal ethical obligation, and moral debt, or religious mandate, to both try to reverse the damage we’ve collectively inflicted, as well as to proactively prepare a very necessary Plan B (captive species preservation). Those railing against the keeping of fishes in aquariums need to realize that the marine aquarists of the world collectively contribute to our plan B, the reef’s failsafe, last hope, every day. True, not every aquarist is a Noah, but you have to have enough fish tanks running in the world for the collective ark to actually work.
It’s time for the anti-aquarium activists to realize that if they want the reef life they love preserved for future generations, attacking aquarists and the industry that supports them is the wrong answer. Get off the moral high horse and face the moral truth – losing a species of marine fish to extinction is entirely unacceptable if it could have been saved by the aquarists of the world. Your well-intentioned work is attacking the one failsafe the coral reefs have. Let’s come together.
So instead, please get busy putting all your political might into fighting the battles against climate change, ocean acidification, coastal pollution and development, and help us create truly well-managed, sustainable fisheries so that the very necessary research we need to perform on the 85% of marine fishes we’ve never bred can actually be accomplished! Yes, some anti-trade activists seem happy to embrace “captive breeding” as the solution for the industry, but they lack the understanding that only approximately 60 species are currently produced at a commercially viable level at this time (roughly 1/3 of the 179 species of marine fish that have been bred at least once based on current Marine Breeding Initiative data). The hobby and industry needs more time, and we need an ongoing sustainable trade in wild caught fish to allow our breeding progress to continue.
For every species that cannot be captive bred today, the industry and hobby as a whole continues to need access to wild-caught specimens in order to continue on this collective independent amateur and commercial research. In the past 5 years, we’ve made tremendous strides, but we still have just started the captive-breeding race. To compare the saltwater to freshwater industry, you need to understand that freshwater breeding has at least a 50-100 year head start on marine breeding, and it is far less technologically difficult. Yes, not every hobbyist is out there trying to breed fish, but when the time comes, it will take a robust, active marine aquarium hobby to financially support the individual and commercial breeders who function as our genetic repositories, with the ongoing propagation of these species funded by the private aquarium hobbyist’s purchases.
Outright bans on the collection of individual species don’t work, regardless of the intention or the perceived reasons (the ban prevents breeders from unlocking their secrets). Bans on the wild fishery as a whole simply shuts off access to the broodstock breeders need. There are at least 1300 species of ornamental marine fish that have never been bred successfully – their time will come, but only if we are allowed to continue the collective research that defines our hobby and industry. I know firsthand, having been the first person to breed and rear a species that most people thought was “doomed” in captivity – I personally proved our own conventional wisdom wrong, and I was just some random hobbyist in a condo in Chicago. For each fish that died along the way, I single-handedly paved the way for this species to now survive in captivity should it ever come under pressure. With over 700,000 marine aquarium hobbyists in the United States alone, it is simply a number game. There are already far more hobbyist breeders than there are commercial breeders and academic researchers. Breakthroughs are going to come from all directions, and quite frankly, many will come from the basement amateur scientist…since there’s potentially 700,000 of them (and no, we’re not making up that number, that’s fact).
Until such time as we could even consider a 100% captive-bred marine hobby, the vast majority of hobbyists and industry professionals WANT sustainable, responsible, and sensible harvest – we want to minimize our impact along the way. This is the first step towards long term preservation. Most fishers know that if they over-harvest fish now, there won’t be fish to harvest in the future – it’s common sense. So let’s work together to both preserve the natural reef and ensure that if our best efforts are thwarted, we still have the ultimate fallback plan, a vibrant, self-sustaining marine aquarium livestock trade, fully enacted. It’s called diversification of risks. It’s a no-brainer. It’s a moral obligation to do the right thing.
Notable aquarium hobbists and leaders in the industry have already been encouraging hobbyist to seek out sustainably harvested livestock, or captive propagated livestock, in an effort to ensure hobbyists vote for the solution with their wallets. So, to those individuals and organizations hell-bent on destroying the aquarium industry, I beg you to come to your senses and stop. It is not immoral to keep an aquarium, in fact the keeping of aquariums is the moral solution to reef loss that’s possibly beyond our power to stop. Instead of trying to tear down the ark, please help aquarists preserve the reeflife we all love. We don’t just owe this to each other – we owe it to each and every species humanity has put at risk.