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You are here:  Home » Resources » Regulate This! - Herbivorous Fishes: Part III

Regulate This! - Herbivorous Fishes: Part III
Legislation, Regulation and the Future of Aquarium Herbivorous Fishes
Part III in a Three Part Treatise on Herbivorous Fishes, Tropical Reefs & the Aquarium Industry

Herbivorous fishes are the primary grazers in reef ecosystems, and many are fantastic aquarium fishes as well. They control marine algae growth, enabling new coral recruits to effectively compete for space, and they have the ability to help degraded, algae-dominated reefs recover. We have seen, however, that we dont know nearly as much as we think we do about them, which leads some to believe that we need to regulate their use in the industry. But is regulation really the answer?

Part I  ~  Part II  ~  Part III

 Yellow Eye Kole Tang
The yellow eye kole tang ( Ctenochaetus strigosus) is a small herbivore from Hawaii with a big appetite for algae.

When it comes to herbivorous fishes on tropical reefs, it is clear we need more information. As both Mumby and Bellwood have shown in part one and part two of this article series, we dont know nearly enough about herbivorous fishes functional roles as primary grazers and sleeping functional groups on healthy and degraded reefs. While it is clear that in the majority of cases, the food fish industry has a much greater impact on wild populations of fishes than the marine ornamental industry, we, as stakeholders in the aquarium trade, need to do more than point fingers. As admirers of reef fishes and the habitats from which they come, we, as aquarists, should consider our impact and the role we can play in raising awareness and furthering conservation, especially when it comes to the herbivorous fishes that are the focus of this article series.

The traditional tools at our disposal to further appropriate conservation of herbivorous fishes are regulation through legislation (national or international) and regulation that is self imposed. Both kinds of regulation must be based on first-hand experience, peer-reviewed research data and knowledge of local ecosystems and economies dependent upon the marine aquarium trade. This is a tall order to fill, no doubt, but it is likely the key to a sustainable marine ornamental industry. The responsibility to act contentiously lies with each individual, whether they are a collector, wholesaler, retailer, or aquarist, but the retailers role is perhaps most critical.

Ongoing Regulation

Attempts to regulate the industry from without are ongoing. Some of these initiatives are based on scientific findings and some are based on emotions. Too often regulations put in place by politicians appear draconian and heavy-handed at best and pandering to political agendas at worst. While there are some science-based, fairly un-political and un-emotional regulatory agencies that directly affect the marine aquarium industry such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), rarely are the wild collection of marine ornamental fishes regulated. When species are regulated by CITES, they are always regulated based on species survival rather than habitat sustainability.

Given the lack of effective external regulation, regulation of the marine ornamental industry by the marine ornamental industry itself is an interesting idea with a great deal of potentialand much internal opposition. Some industry leaders are actively experimenting with self-regulation, but only time will tell in terms of the impact this might have on the industry, the species in question and tropical reefs worldwide. Grassroots self-regulation by aquarists has the potential to be the most effective and palatable self-regulation of all, but it will only occur with education, which, at present is one of the most important roles for retailers to play. While it is the aquarists that create the demand, it is the retailers who are in the best position to educate.

What should we, as stakeholders in the marine ornamental industry, do with the information at our disposal? What should we do with the information obtained through the work of researchers like Dr. Peter Mumby (part one in this series) and Dr. David Bellwood (part one in this series)? How might their researchand the research of other marine scientistsinform our own experience, whether we are collectors, wholesalers, retailers, or aquarists? In short, how can we become positive leaders in our own industryinfluencing the way we perceive ourselves and the way others perceive us? A sustainable industry based on a sustainable ecosystem is in everyones best interest, but how we can actively work toward achieving that ideal?

Surgeonfishes and Effective Regulation

 Yellow Tang
The yellow tang ( Zebrasoma flavescens is often the poster child for herbivory.

In addition to parrotfishes, rabbitfishes, and yes, even batfishes, surgeonfishes (e.g., tangs) are algae grazers popular with aquarists. Surgeonfishes, especially fish such as the yellow tang (Zebrasoma flaviscens), have also been firmly in the sites of some reef conservationists. This past winter, for example, proposed Hawaiian Senate Bill 3225 sought to severely restrict the export of the poster child for herbivory in the marine aquarium tradethe yellow tang. The Legislation also sought to establish a no-take category which included, but was not limited to, all puffer fish, all box fish, potter's angel, cleaner wrasse, all coralvores, and all eels. The original bill did not pass, although the House Concurrent Legislation (HCR 347) that was eventually adopted, states that the Hawaiian Department of Land and Natural Resources (DNLNR) is urged to proceed expeditiously with the adoption of rules to regulate the ornamental reef fishery industry....

The adopted Resolutions language makes it clear that the Legislature is concerned about the status of all ornamental reef fishes in Hawaiian waters, but especially herbivorous fishes like the yellow tang. The Resolution states that herbivores, such as yellow tang and other surgeon fish are being collected in a manner that is not effectively regulated and enforced Why is the collection of these herbivores not effectively regulated and enforced? [B]ecause, as the Resolution states, it is difficult to quantify the exact number of ornamental reef fish taken from the state's reefs....

To answer the question of what exactly effective regulation might mean, more observation and data collection is essential. This is the only way to put meaningful, formal regulation in place, but bringing all the stakeholders to the table is not an easy task. As a result, some industry leaders have stepped out on their own to self-regulate based on their experience dealing with thousands upon thousands of fishes, their understanding of the most current scientific data and their knowledge of collection areas around the world. These efforts to self-regulate have been met with a mixed response from within the industry, however. They have been criticized as being at best tokenism and ineffective and, at worst, harmful to the industry as a whole.

 Princess Parrotfish
A starving bicolor parrotfish (Cetoscarus bicolor ) in a wholesalers tank. While bordering on cute as a juvenile, many aquarist dont realize it changes color completely and grows to 35 inches.

Blue Zoo Aquatics, for example, has chosen to support Mumbys call for self regulation of parrotfishes (see Queen of Green). Its not so much that we believe the marine ornamental industry is having any appreciable negative impact on wild populations of parrotfishes when compared to overfishing for food, says Mark Martin, Blue Zoos director of marine ornamental research. For us, this is really about education. Our plan is to leave the product page up for fishes like the bicolor parrotfish, but when a potential customer goes to that page, they will learn that this is one of the species we only offer to public aquaria, scientists and advanced aquarists who know exactly what this fish requires in terms of husbandry. More importantly, they will learn why we self-regulate this animal, and, through this, hopefully the customer will become more aware.

Martin is clear that Blue Zoo Aquatics does not believe in blanket global regulations on the marine ornamental industry. We at Blue Zoo are all about protecting the ocean and the reefs, but we believe marine aquaria can and should play a role in raising peoples awareness, says Martin. Global regulations that would put us and other people like us out of business are absolutely unwarranted at present. In short, Martin concludes, global regulations would needlessly kill this industry, but the time to take action to regulate ourselves is long overdue. In order to stop the threat of blanket regulation, we, as an industry, must band together to show lawmakers, conservationists and the global community that we, as an industry, are capable of sustaining the source of our own livelihood.

Blue Zoo Aquatics is certainly not the only player in the marine ornamental industry that believes there is a connection between self-regulation, a sustainable hobby and conservation of tropical reef ecosystems. Many people along the chain of custody from collector to wholesaler to retailer to aquarist see themselves playing an important role when it comes to conservation; supporting local economies in remote, developing island nations; and promoting a sustainable trade that encourages people to become more familiar with reefs, reef species and the plight of both in the wild. It is for this reason that many collectors choose not to collect some species they could readily sell at a premium, that many importers choose to not import some fishes that are perfectly legal for them to import, that many retailers choose not to offer some fishes that would certainly sell; and that many aquarists choose not to buy some species that are readily available for purchase. The bigger question is: Can the marine aquariumindustry survive as a sustainable industry with this kind of grassroots self-regulation alone?

Unfortunately there are many collectors who, for whatever reason, still employ unsustainable collection techniques. There are many wholesalers that address massive mortality resulting from poor husbandry with exponentially increased volume. There are many retailers that will sell a fish if they can get a premium price regardless of whether or not that fish has any chance of surviving in the aquarists system. And of course there are many aquarists who throw fistfuls of money at their saltwater tank as if it was little more than an expensive piece of art without educating themselves and without a thought to compatibility or conservation. It is for these people who are more concerned with a bottom line than a sustainable industry that external regulation is targeted and perhaps even needed.

Banning a Ban

Dave Palmer, director of Pacific Aqua Farms in Los Angeles, is opposed to any sort of external ban except in the case of severely threatened species. Nonetheless, he chooses to import very few parrotfishes each year. It is, in effect, a personal ban on the fish, says Palmer, but if someone else wants to bring in 100 or 200 or whatever, I think that they should be able to unless there is a sound case made that it is threatened in the wild.

Palmer is like many in the industry who thinks a banwhether it be self-imposed by the industry or noton any species not directly threatened with extinction is a bad idea. The problem I see with having a ban on a species due to poor survival or poor adaptation to captivity is that there are so many different opinions on what is and is not acceptable that soon a case will be made to ban virtually everything. One person wants to ban tangs and cleaner wrasses, another ribbon eels, another all wild caught clownfish, and now were talking a ban on parrotfish.

 Princess Parrotfish
The princess parrotfish ( Ctenochaetus strigosus) is one fish Blue Zoo Aquatics has elected to self-regulate in an effort to raise awareness about the role of herbivores on degraded tropical reefs and unsuitability of most parrotfish in the home aquarium.

The guy with a happy parrotfish in his tank would clearly not agree with the parrotfish ban. The thousands of people who enjoy tangs in their home tanks would not like to see a ban on tangs. The guys with ribbon eels that are eating and thriving love their eels and do not want to see them banned. Most of all, the poor guy out on the reef collecting does not want to see anything taken away from his livelihood. There are collectors that collect only tangs, some that collect only clownfishalthough I do not know of any that collect only parrotfish. When we start talking of a ban it becomes a personal agenda of folks who have strong opinions of what lives and does not, what is proper to keep and what is not.

Generally speaking, of the four herbivorous fishes discussed in the previous articlesparrotfishes, rabbittfishes, batfishes, and surgeonfishesparrotfishes have the highest captive mortality, but batfishes are probably a close second. Martin agrees that batfishes can be touchy, although its his experience that, batfishes, when provided with the right habitat and husbandry in a home aquarium, tend to do better than parrotfishes. Blue Zoo does sell batfishes to all customers, although they do list batfishes as expert only fishes. I have seen many a healthy batfish, remarks Martin, kept by an experienced aquarist in a suitably-sized home aquarium, yet I have rarely seem a parrotfish truly settle in to captivity and live out a healthy life in anything but the largest public aquaria.

Offering fishes that are considered touchy will always be a controversial subject, and the retailer can only do so much to educate aquarists. Ultimately, it is the individual aquarist who needs to be contentious. Each aquarist needs to know their own abilities and capacity to provide the proper husbandry for any species they purchase.

Hawaii A Case in Point

Why not just ban all collection of wild caught fishes? While some may see this as the solution, most do not. Many marine scientists and fisheries managers, for example, agree there is an important intersection between the science, the hobby and the conservation movement.

I strongly believe that a sustainable marine ornamental trade is a key component in securing a positive future for coral reefs," says Dr. Bellwood. Unsustainable practices are a problem, he acknowledges, but the big problem when it comes to regulation is that some people assume that all collecting is unsustainable, and this is far from the truth.

Many of Hawaiis fish collectors agree that sustainable collecting is just that, sustainable. They are proud of the job they do and they care deeply about the reefs and reef species upon which their livelihoods are based. One such collector, Matthew Ross, in his testimony before the Hawaiian legislature this past winter, clearly expressed his opposition to an overly regulated industry including species bans based on emotion instead of data.

Ross, a commercial aquarium fish collector on Oahu, holds a Bachelors of Science degree in Marine Biology from the University of Hawaii. Ross is an active scientific diver for the University, and he has participated in a number of research projects concerning coral reef conservation, fisheries monitoring, and marine exploration. He claims that 90-percent of his income depends upon marine aquarium fish.

I am proud of the job that I do, Ross said in his testimony opposing the initial bill. I believe that, if properly managed, the aquarium fishery is a very sustainable resource and a valuable asset to the state of Hawaii. I am strongly opposed to Senate Bill 3225, which has no scientific justification, would needlessly destroy the livelihoods of the people who depend on the fishery, and would ultimately fail to provide real protection for the fish that need it most.

Like many fish collectors around the world, Ross knows that a sustainable fishery is essential to a healthy industry and a sustainable hobby. Our livelihoods depend on maintaining healthy fish stocks in Hawaii, he said. We have no desire to see our resources depleted. Ross strives to fish, as he puts it, in a responsible and sustainable manner every day by taking only the fish he needs, rotating his collection areas, not taking species unsuitable for captivity, and submitting full and accurate catch reports to the DLNR every month. Most collectors, including myself, he said, would welcome meaningful legislation to protect the resource upon which we depend for a living. But for Ross, and many others, there is one major caveat. [The legislation] needs to come from people with a real knowledge of the fishery, rather than private individuals who may harbor personal agendas against our industry.

Whether or not the incentive behind the recent proposed legislation in Hawaii was a bias against the industry, it is clear from the final resolutions language that public pressure (and charged emotions) has indeed played a role. [O]ver the past several years, the Respolution states, the Legislature has received a barrage of requests to take action on measures relating to fishing rights, and the development and implementation of rules regarding the regulation of taking ornamental reef fish for aquarium use...

Unfortunately, many of those requests to take action have come from people with little if any knowledge of fisheries management. While their intentions may be good, their deep pockets, entangling political alliances, lack of knowledge, and other agendas have often resulted in proposed legislation that is misguided. Those same deep pockets and entangling political alliances are, however, one of the reasons these individuals can get things done, whether its in Honolulu or Washington, D.C. The voice of the contentious aquarist, collector, wholesaler, or retailer can often pale in comparison, which is why a sustainable marine aquarium industry may have the best chance of surviving when addressed from the inside out.

A Worthwhile Project

Dr. Daniel Pauly
Science Magazine called Dr. Daniel Pauly arguably the world's most prolific and widely cited living fisheries scientist.

Dr. Daniel Pauly is the Director of the Fisheries Centre of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, where he is also a professor. He is considered one of the most important fisheries experts worldwide, and his thinking on fisheries conservation has been largely responsible for a paradigm shift in the way fisheries are managed.

I don't know as much as I should about the aquarium fish industry, though what little I know suggests it may be benign compared to the fishing [for food] industry. While Pauly does not keep aquariaI definitely have a brown thumb, he says, and all the aquaria that I ever started ended up as watery mass graveshe is not opposed to the aquarium hobby. In fact, he is a frequent visitor to public marine aquaria and cites such visits as having a profound effect on both him and his children.

In the mid-1990s, Pauly began to focus more of his efforts on conservation as opposed to strict fisheries science. The reason why I turned towards conservationis because I was not seeing the work of fisheries scientistslocal and foreignworking in tropical developing countries or having any effect on policy making. In fact there was a complete disconnect between political decisions affecting fisheries and the work of fisheries scientists, even within the same ministry. When Pauly came to North America, he may have expected to see a more cohesive system where political decisions were informed by good science. Unfortunately, he says he did not. This is the reason why I now work with environmental groups, which can carry ones message to a broader public and exert pressure.

While Pauly remains a proponent of sustainable fisheries and fisheries regulation based on good science, he posits an interesting idea in regard to herbivorous fishes. I do not see why, with the scientific advances available nowadays, he says, we cannot have a closed system for the production of herbivorous coral fish for aquaria. In other words, does the aquarium industry really need to depend on a steady supply of wild caught herbivorous marine fishes? Is it realistic to meet the demand for fishes such as certain surgeonfishes through captive breeding alone? What of local economies in developing nations based around the collection of plentiful species of wild captured herbivorous fishes? Clearly there are many issues to consider, but captive breeding for marine aquaria is certainly an area in which there is great deal of potential.

The Real Problem - Our Relationship with Herbivorous Fishes

Overall, Pauly believes the real problem is that most people do not perceive fish as wildlife. Wildlife in North America is composed of raccoons, wolves and bearsanimals with personalities, who have faces, and emotions we understand. Fish remain impassible when we hook them, and dont scream when we eviscerate them. They are perceived as things, at best like flowers, often like cabbages. Cabbages are not wildlife. This is a reason why fish conservation has such a hard time.

Pauly has suggested in the past that people need to engage with fisheries in a manner that goes beyond a consumer-product relationship. I dont like the notion of us being reduced or engaged mainly as consumers rather than as a citizen, he says. Aquarists, however, are not consumers of fish; I suppose they are admirers of fish. This is the reason why it is important for aquarist organizations to work through their membership to reduce negative [industry-driven] ecosystem impacts. I can easily see such industry being an ally to coral reef conservation organizations throughout the world.

This would be a worthwhile project, Pauly adds.

Additional Resources

You can read Blue Zoo News complete interview with Dr. David Pauly here.

To read part I in this series, Queen of Green, click here.

To read part II in this series, Sleeper Cells and Unusual Suspects, click here.

If you would like to comment on this article, please contact the editor at editor@bluezooaquatics.com.

Published 17 June 2008. Blue Zoo Aquatics

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