Daniel Thornhill, Conservation Scientist
Our work to protect wildlife doesn’t only happen on land; we’re also working to improve the conservation of coral reefs and other marine habitats. Coral reefs are an important part of the world’s oceans, yet these rich and diverse ecosystems are imperiled by many threats. The warming climate, acidifying oceans, overfishing and pollution are common causes of coral reef decline, and other factors are contributing to the crisis. One under-recognized but potentially significant problem is the collection of coral reef wildlife for the aquarium trade. There are more than 1,800 fish species collected from reefs to supply this trade, and most of the wildlife collected is imported to the United States. While many of these species can be collected sustainably, over-exploitation has greatly diminished populations of some popular species such as Banggai cardinalfish, mandarinfish and many clownfish.
On top of heavy collection, harmful collection methods can severely damage the reef itself. Unscrupulous fish collectors sometimes use illegal, unethical and harmful methods to take fish from the reef. Perhaps the worst practice is fishing with cyanide and other poisons; collectors place cyanide into the water to stun fish and make collecting easier. The chemicals weaken the collected fish, which results in fewer survivors during shipment and ultimately more harvesting. It also damages or kills corals and other organisms living on reefs. Some irresponsible collectors even crush the slow-growing corals to capture hiding fish. This destroys habitat, leading to ecosystem degradation and loss.
Fortunately there are better ways of doing business. Petco, an industry leader and a major retailer of marine fish, reached out to us for guidance in their effort to improve marine life collection practices. Over time, Petco and Defenders have developed a collaboration to improve the conservation of coral reefs and reef-dependent fish throughout the world by encouraging sustainable collection and breeding.
In addition to eliminating harmful marine life collection practices, we aim to help prevent overfishing and, whenever possible, replace wild-collected fish with aquacultured fish that are born and raised in tanks – a far more sustainable practice. Petco is taking several steps to reach these goals; they already offer aquacultured fish wherever possible reducing the impact on coral reefs. They are also working with breeders to explore ways to further expand these numbers with a goal to eventually offer only aquacultured saltwater life. In addition, Petco is setting guidelines for its vendors that require sustainable marine life collection practices. Finally, Petco is providing information in-store and online to help customers and the public make environmentally responsible choices, and encouraging aquarium enthusiasts to choose aquacultured fish.
While I’m excited to tell you about the work we have done so far, this is just the beginning. Going forward, Defenders and Petco will continue working together to put sustainable marine life collection practices in place, while helping to eliminate destructive ones. Together we will measure and evaluate the benefits of this initiative to coral reef wildlife. At Defenders, we’re working on identifying coral reef fish species that are most vulnerable to over-collection so that we can make smart decisions about which ones to protect. And we will continue to collaborate with Petco and other industry leaders to identify and implement new strategies to improve the health of coral reefs and reef fish populations. We still have a long way to go to protect coral reefs, but this new collaboration is a very positive step in the right direction.