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The Ethics of Popularizing Hard-to-Keep Species
Two Aquarists Share their Experiences with Expert-Only Fish

There are those saltwater fishes everyone knows are difficult to keep in an aquarium. They are the ones that show up in “Species Not to Keep” lists or are labeled as “Expert Only” fishes. While it varies from fish to fish, it often comes down to feeding and, specifically, to one’s ability to wean a wild-caught fish onto a captive diet. The process becomes even more difficult and time-consuming in the absence of effective husbandry protocols, and often demand for these fishes becomes appropriately non-existent.

An Ethical Dilemma for the Marine Aquarist

For a few difficult-to-keep species without proactive husbandry protocols in place, however, the allure—be it aesthetic, cognitive or monetary—is too great. These animals continue to enter the hobby, and the result is often an ethical dilemma for those experienced enough to be able to predict the potentially dismal mortality that will result. And yet they (we?) import (and sell?) them anyway. Many critics would see no ethical dilemma in this situation. Instead, they would see a clear case of immorality—at best a selfish pleasure and at worst a spiteful deed. After all, how can one justify the collection and importation of an animal that is likely to die in the aquarium?

The reality is that some advanced aquarists and researchers have, through a combination of study, research and experience, developed protocols that have unraveled the husbandry puzzles of fishes once considered next to impossible to keep. Much like in the freshwater aquarium world, marine fishes that were once considered “delicate” are transformed into captive-bred “bread-and-butter” animals for the hobby. In the process, essential data is collected and added to a growing body of knowledge that deepens our understanding of species and the ecosystems from which they originate. This is exciting stuff, and the ends appear to justify the means.

Newfound Popularity Comes at a Price

There is a time, however, between an animal being a difficult-to-keep, wild-caught fish and a hardy, captive-bred success story when the question of ethics once again arises. When a new article is published about one aquarist’s success with a species once thought impossible to keep, the excitement is palpable. Tantalizing glossy photographs and detailed husbandry information temp experienced aquarists to reconsider the fish’s place in the hobby. Perhaps the novice sees a “pretty fish” on the cover of a magazine and decides to get it. Retailers begin to receive increased inquiries, and while the good ones advise caution, others see no harm in making a buck. The customer is always right, after all. Right?

The act of publishing a first success in a general hobby magazine like CORAL or Tropical Fish Hobbyist can be seen as popularizing an animal whose time has not quite arrived. “I fear that this newfound popularity may come at a price,” says Matt Wittenrich, a doctoral candidate in larval fish physiology at the Florida Institute of Technology and the author of the critically acclaimed The Complete Illustrated Breeder s Guide to Marine Aquarium Fishes (Microcosm / TFH, 2007). “Because methods are now available to maintain and breed these fishes, I fear that too many aquarists may experiment and try their hand at something they are not prepared for.” Reflecting back on his own articles on keeping and breeding mandarins, Wittenrich wonders aloud if he made it sound too easy. “Will we somehow increase the rate of purchase in the absence of proper procedure?”

Matt Pedersen published an article in the March / April issue of CORAL Magazine titled “A New Future for the Harlequin Filefish”. This species, sometimes referred to as the orangespotted filefish (Oxymonacanthus longirostris), is commonly considered a “doomed to die” species, but Pedersen suggests in the article that “[w]hat is currently thought of as a doomed species could become one of our next bread-and-butter fish…” While the mandarins about which Wittenrich wrote are already a popular fish (albeit with a dismal captive survival record), the filefishes about which Pedersen is writing are rarely if ever seen at retailers. Might his article change this?

 “What I see in these articles is that we are making sure to provide a balanced perspective,” responds Pederson. “For the harlequin filefish, I pushed as strongly as possible for the inclusion of the requirement that each filefish be trained in its own 10-gallon tank.  That is something I strongly believe in.  I was also very careful to relate that these are still ‘expert only’ fish in my eyes.  Many people would not be able to keep this species as a wild-caught fish due to their rather demanding care requirements.”

A Picture Speaks a Thousand Words

But the pictures. Pictures of harlequin filefish swimming about in a 24-gallon nano tank with spotted mandarinfish (Synchirpus picturatus) and ocellaris clowfish (Amphiprion ocellaris). Pictures of harlequin filefishes acclimating. Pictures of “plump” filefishes and “Do-it-yourself filefish feeding sticks” (all you need are frozen Ocean Nutrition Formula One marine protein and algae cubes” and a few dead branches of SPS coral rubble). There are even pictures of prolarva and filefish juveniles which Pedersen raised in a nano tank in his home. “Certainly,” the moderately experienced hobbyist says to him- or herself, “certainly I must have a chance of success. Right?”

Even Pedersen admits that his article, as honest as it is as to one’s chances of success, will popularize the species in the hobby. “I do believe that my filefish article will see more people trying to keep this species, although they will be doing so armed with the benefit of my experiences and successes.  In the end, none of us can control what a hobbyist chooses to do.”

Wittenrich acknowledges first hand that popularity is borne from success. “I half want to buy a pair of filefish now,” he says, adding that it was an idea he never had before reading Pedersen’s article. “Matt has done something never done before, and this will surely inspire curiosity among the masses.” Wittenrich speaks from experience. “I would say I get ten emails a week from aquarists wanting to breed mandarins,” he says. “This is fantastic news and I think in the long run will contribute to the success of widespread breeding and our understanding of captive maintenance.”

Both Pedersen and Wittenrich agree, however, that both harlequin filefishes and mandarins belong on “Species Not to Keep” lists. Neither aquarist would advocate removing them because of the successes they have had or based on the articles they have penned. “For the people who are looking at such a list,” says Pedersen, “the ‘do not keep’ recommendation is probably appropriate!"

The Daily Dilemma – Individual Mortality 

At the personal heart of the ethical debate over working with hard-to-keep species is reconciling the number of fish that will inevitably die in the pursuit of a single live specimen. “If we think ethically,” Wittenrich asks, “how many would be okay? Is it okay if one dies for every one that lives? What about 30? Mandarins are no different in this respect. For every breeding pair of mandarins I have accumulated, I have lost roughly seven. Is this ethical? I am no closer to an answer, but this is something I struggle with everyday.”

With the stakes being as high as they are, it’s fair to ask what the primary end-game is. Why publish in general hobby publications innovative husbandry and breeding information about species most aquarists will not succeed in keeping? For Pedersen, it’s about conservation. “If you believe the forecasts that in 10-50 years, coral reefs will be extinct, that means quite directly that in 10-50 years, harlequin filefish will also be extinct because, in nature, they are obligatory corallivores.” The fact that Pedersen has, for the first time, successfully reared harlequin filefish in captivity and weaned them onto a captive diet means that, even in the direst scenario where all coral reefs disappear, harlequin filefish can still survive in captivity until such time as their natural ecosystem can be restored. 

“The end goal for me,” says Wittenrich, “is sustainability, research, and furthering our knowledge of the hobby and the marine realm we seek to duplicate.” Wittenrich believes that conservation is a large part of this. “Aquariums are amazing tools that have the power to captivate and to educate. The more we learn, the more we are willing to participate in protecting what we love. I think as we further our knowledge of husbandry and breeding we come closer to our common goal of sustainability.”

Popularizing Technique Over Species

While aquarists are famous for disagreeing, one point on which most will agree is that a sustainable and robust marine aquarium hobby is an admirable goal. Popularizing a fish is a double-edged sword. On the one hand it increases demand and heightens the impact of wild populations (a real concern for mandarins at present), while on the other hand it makes people care about animals to which they never previously gave a thought.

“Popularizing a fish,” says Wittenrich, “brings inherent risks to species survival and persistence in the wild independent of its labeling. The Banggai cardinalfish is an easily observed example of what popularizing can do to a population…. [This fish] is undoubtedly in the midst of a battle brought on by over collection for the aquarium trade as a direct result of being popular.”

Both Wittenrich and Pedersen believe there is something to be said for popularizing husbandry techniques over individual species. “By popularizing techniques rather than species,” Wittenrich says, “we stand to change the way aquarists approach keeping these species and, in the end, hopefully change the fate of many specimens as well as the fate of the fishkeeper.”

When it comes to mandarins, Pedersen agrees it’s not so much about popularizing the species. “I do not look at the current news as ‘popularizing’ the species. It is more about popularizing new ways of thinking about the species. Fundamentally, mandarin care requirements have not changed, they are still delicate, selective fish, but there are clearly protocols that work for wild caught fish.”

“Maintaining healthy fish inspires newcomers to stay involved in the hobby of aquarium keeping,” adds Wittenrich. “If they purchase a fish unsuited to their ability or simply obtain a fish beyond help, they are less likely to stay in the hobby. Ultimately, in the near future, we will not only be able to offer advice and techniques, but we will be able to offer captive-raised specimens that have a near 100% survival rate. This is the goal. Before we get there, there is always a risk.”

To Be Continued

We will discuss some more of that risk, as well as other factors that contribute to the ongoing ethical dilemma associated with popularizing hard-to-keep species of fish in the part two of this series. If you’d like to contribute to the discussion, or if you’d like to ask Matt Wittenrich or Matt Pedersen any questions in the interim, please send an e-mail to editor@bluezooaquatics.com.

Published 17 April 2009. © Blue Zoo Aquatics 










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