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Managing the Aquarium Trade


The aquarium trade is any action in which aquatic species are taken from their habitats and sold for one of several uses, including, but not limited to, being sold for exotic pets, sold to aquariums, and sold as delicacies in foreign countries. The trade arose globally in the 1930's, and has been growing since. [1] Since its emergence, the aquarium trade has figuratively exploded in the last two decades. [1]

Global Economic Impacts


Export in the aquarium trade is mostly comprised of developing coastal countries, in part because of a lesser developed economy. [2] As a result, poorer coastal countries are often centralized around the trade as a means of income. [2] The majority (90%–99%) of ornamentals are obtained from coral reefs with about 45 countries including: Brazil, Maldives, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Hawai'i, the Caribbean, and the principal suppliers, Indonesia and the Philippines. [1]


Import in the aquarium trade is dominant in developed countries with expendable income. [2] Globally, the market for exotic aquatic species is dominated mostly by the USA, which constitutes 60% of global demand.[1] Western Europe, Japan, and Australia also contribute majorly to the importing of exotic species. [1] It is interesting to note that Australia is one of the few countries with both a substantial export and import contributing to the aquarium trade market.

Overall global impact

Despite being a relatively new market, the aquarium trade is an expanding market globally. [1] The trade has become so large that it involves 350 million fish annually. [3] As recently as 2002, the industry has been valued at $963 million. [3]

Effects on Wild Populations

Case Study: Hawaiian Islands

Brian Tissot and colleagues were the one who first performed a significant study on the effect of aquarium collecting on natural populations. [3] Their experiment was a large scale study on Kona, Hawaii, in which they surveyed 10 aquarium species population in addition to a few non-aquarium species and coral populations along the coast. They found that 7 of 10 species surveyed were significantly affected by collecting for the aquarium trade. [3] Their measurements for these affected species showed that abundances were lowered significantly, ranging from 38% to 75% lower in abundance than control sites that had no collecting.[3]
    • Few Non-target fish were affected
      • only 2 effected [3]
      • not indicative of over fishing pracitces [3]

Case Study: Banggai Cardinalfish

  • it has been shown that even if fishing practices are not necessarily destructive, it can have an effect on populations of wild fish [4]
  • traps with sea urchins in them, a closely related organism, were used to catch fish, and both populations were effected [4]

Aquarium Trade as an Invasion Pathway

  • Major source of exotic species invasion [2] [5]
    • In part caused by owners that feel they don't wan't
      • Re-released into non-native waters
      • Sometimes affects ecosystem balance by out-competing or throwing off natural food webs
  • Often goes unnoticed
    • Hard to regulate
    • Focus on other invasion pathways such as ballast water

Case Study: Lionfish

  • Lionfish are native species of the southern pacific and Indian oceans [6]
  • The first documented lionfish sighting was off the coast of NC in 2002 [6]
    • It was originally thought to not be a significant threat because the latitude of NC and north were thought to get too cold in the winter for the lionfish to survive—they thought they would be dead before anything bad happened
  • Since 2002, the lionfish population has steadily increased. [6]
    • “During a summer 2004 research expedition, NOAA scientists collected 155 lionfish at 19 different locations off the North Carolina coast alone.”
    • Lionfish smaller than those sold for aquariums were spotted, indicating that they were thriving and breeding.
  • Scientists believe that the Aquarium trade is the major vector for the invasion of the lionfish into Atlantic waters </ ref name="lionfish">
    • The Philippines is a big exporter of lionfish to the us for the aquarium trade
    • It is believed that people buy lionfish for home aquariums and then decide they do not want them anymore so they release them into the ocean.
    • Some marine scientists suggest ballast water as the vector of invasion, however there is no evidence to support this theory (but since ballast water is to blame for other fish invasions, it is also hard to completely rule this out)
    • It is very unlikely that the lionfish naturally migrated through the panama canal as they probably would not survive the journey between two oceans
  • Effects on Atlantic aquarium populations: [6]
    • “In native coral reef populations, lionfish have few predators and prey on a variety of smaller fish”
    • Little is known how native species will adapt to the new species
    • “Lionfish also are believed to pose high risks to the local reef communities.”
      • “As a predator of both economically and ecologically important species, lionfish a capable of disrupting the balance of reef communities.”
      • “Lionfish are ambush predators and may use their outstretched, fan-like pectoral fins to "corner" their prey.”
    • Introduced competition into the ecosystem, which can have huge ecological impacts in the future
    • “Another important factor is that native prey species lack of experience in confronting the intimidating lionfish might make the lionfish a more effective predator.”
  • Can the invasion be stopped? [6]
    • Probably not
    • Large scale removal is expensive and impractical
    • Currently found across the entire southeastern US
    • Scientists believe that lionfish population can be controlled in areas such as the Caribbean
    • The Lionfish population will probably continue to grow

Prevention or Management Methods and Future Impacts

Prevention or Management Methods

  • Reef Check Program [7]
    • checking indicator organisms
    • around 300 reefs in 31 countries
  • Quarantine methods
    • Necessary to locate hot spots of non-native species in order to maximize effectiveness [5]
  • Re-release regulation
    • Hard to enforce
  • Regulation on collection
    • also hard to enforce in developing countries

Future Impacts

  • "The marine aquarium industry has great potential to generate jobs in low-income coastal communities creating incentives for the maintenance of a healthy coral reef, if effectively managed." [1]
    • one problem is that there are several data gaps and inaccuracies involved in measuring aquarium trade and fishing practices [1]

References in Popular Culture

  • Finding Nemo
    • Sparked interest over the relatively unheard of industry.
    • People now want "Nemo" or "Dory" fish
  • The Spongebob Squarepants Movie


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Murray JM, Watson GJ, Giangrande A, Licciano M, Bentley MG (2012) Managing the Marine Aquarium Trade: Revealing the Data Gaps Using Ornamental Polychaetes. PLoS ONE 7(1): e29543. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0029543
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Padilla, Dianna K. "Beyond ballast water: aquarium and ornamental trades as sources of invasive species in aquatic ecosystems." Front Ecol Environ. (2004): 131-138. Print.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 Tissot, Brian N. "Effects of Aquarium Collectors on Coral Reef Fishes in Kona, Hawaii." Conservation Biology. 17.6 (2003): 1759-1767. Print.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Kolm, Niclas. "Wild Populations of a Reef Fish Suffer from the “Nondestructive” Aquarium Trade Fishery." Conservation Biology. 17.3 (2003): 910-914. Print.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Semmens, Brice X. "A hotspot of non-native marine fishes: evidence for the aquarium trade as an invasion pathway." MARINE ECOLOGY PROGRESS SERIES. 266. (2004): 239-244. Print.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 United States Department of Commerce. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration . Lionfish Invasion!. Print. <>.
  7. Hodgson, G. "A Global Assessment of Human E€ects on Coral Reefs." Marine Pollution Bulletin. 38.5 (1993): 345-355. Print.

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