By Dan Thornhill and Laura Dee, UC Santa Barbara
Coral reef ecosystems face many conservation challenges. Reefs are in decline all across the world as a result of pollution, overfishing, global warming, acidifying oceans, and more. One potential contributor to the decline of coral reefs is the collection of colorful and attractive fish to supply the aquarium trade. Overexploitation of reef fishes can lead to population declines and even localized extinctions. A prominent example is the Banggai cardinalfish, a gorgeous reef fish that is now endangered due to over collection for the aquarium trade.
Across the world, governments have attempted a wide range of conservation and management strategies for coral reefs. Their goal is usually to protect reef resources while also allowing trade to continue sustainably. To learn from these practices and to identify success stories that can be replicated elsewhere, we reviewed conservation practices in 18 different states and countries.
Unfortunately, many of the places that we examined had very minimal protections for reef wildlife. For example, 58% did not have a plan for how to manage fish for the aquarium trade. Only 4 of the 18 places that we examined assessed what level of fishing would be sustainable. 73% of countries examined did not restrict the size of reef fishes that could be caught for the aquarium trade. Management and conservation measures were often minimal, leaving few protections for reef fishes, and opening the door for over collection to occur. To ensure a sustainable supply of fishes and healthy populations, collection for the aquarium trade requires careful monitoring and oversight.
Despite these patterns, there were some examples of successful management practices. For example, the Maldives uses a system that applies increasing protections for reef fishes depending on their vulnerability – the more danger a species is in, the more protection they get. Another example is Australia, which limits who is allowed to fish, puts limits on the total number of fish that can be taken, has areas where fishing is not allowed, bans certain species, and has a robust system of import and export restrictions to protect wildlife. Here in the U.S., the Big Island of Hawai’i has set aside 35% of the Kona coastline as a no-fishing reserve and recently added restrictions on which fish can be taken.
These successful approaches to conservation should be used more widely and combined with innovative new methods from food fisheries. By calling attention to successful practices, we hope to help improve protections for reef wildlife across the world.