How do we promote conservation in the aquarium hobby?
The aquarium hobby is under frequent scrutiny to examine our sustainability and environmental impact. This scrutiny should not be coming only from our detractors. We should be scrutinizing ourselves and examining our choices to ensure that we are making the best decisions possible. In fact, it is entirely possible for aquarists to actually promote conservation.
For years, the message that has been preached when it comes to being more sustainable and eco-friendly in the aquarium hobby is only choose captive bred fish. The vast majority (90+%) of freshwater fish available come from captive bred sources, and organizations such as Rising Tide Conservation provide an immense boost to the sustainability of the marine trade.
The counterpoint to this message is the implication that wild collection is detrimental. Every fish taken from the wild, this line of thought would conclude, depletes wild populations and leads fish one step closer to extinction.
However, this logic turns out not to be true after all. Certainly, there are a handful of instances where over collecting has been an immense threat to a species of fish. But there are many more instances where collection has a negligible or even beneficial to wild populations.
How can wild collection benefit the species being collected? One powerful way is by giving an incentive to the local communities to protect them.
In Situ Conservation
When talking about sustainability and conservation, one term that is often thrown about is in-situ, which is just a fancy, Latin way of saying on site or in their natural habitat. The biggest threat to any species comes from habitat destruction. Whether it's destroying or reshaping the environment to create space for people to live or some other effect of human habitation (e.g. pollution), most species are going to suffer and potentially perish when their natural habitat is so dramatically altered.
The challenge here is that virtually every person on this planet, almost all 7+ Billion of us, put our own lives and needs first. It's easy to say that, for example, the Amazon should be left alone so that the animals that live in it have a chance to thrive, but for the people who live on the Amazon, they need all the same things to survive as the rest of us. They need to have food to eat, water to drink, space for housing, money to buy life's necessities. All of these needs come above worrying about some 1" long fish in the river they live next to.
The key, then, is to tie the continued success and viability of that 1" fish directly to their lives.
Project Piaba discovered just this when doing research expeditions to determine the impact of the ornamental fish trade on the health of the Rio Negro, a tributary of the Amazon River. Without a doubt, there are many fish being collected and shipped out of the Rio Negro for aquarium hobbyists worldwide. But what they also found was that the fishing communities (who relied on selling those fish to survive) had the foresight to not over fish and deplete those populations, which would ultimately take away their livelihood. They also took great care to protect the river so that the fish could continue to thrive.
Without the income from the fish they collected, these communities would have to rely on their other resources to survive. Those other resources are trees and land. They would have to turn to logging, cutting down and selling the trees of the rainforest (which are much slower to reproduce and grow than fish). Or they'd have to clear cut large areas to use as farms and ranches, leading to any number of agricultural pollutants running into the river, leading to the needless deaths of countless fish.
But because the continued health of the fish populations was so intrinsically tied to their lives, they were motivated to preserve the prosperity of the river and the forest.
In addition to recognizing how wild collection can help defend against habitat loss, you also need to recognize that removing a fish does not automatically mean the overall population is one step closer to extinction. This is because populations generally remain near the carrying capacity of their environment.
What is carrying capacity? Simply put, it's the total number of individuals of a given species that an ecosystem can support.
There is a certain elasticity to population sizes. You can increase a given population, but there will be an increase in competition for resource. Individuals won't be able to have enough food or shelter to thrive, so life for the entire population becomes harder. When this happens, birth rates drop and mortality increases until the population size reaches a more suitable level.
Conversely, when part of a population is removed, the remaining individuals are left with an abundance of resources. This makes them more productive, they reproduce more often and more of their offspring have the resources they need to survive. The population increases until they again reach the equilibrium of their carrying capacity.
That's not to say that overfishing is not a concern. You can collect a certain number of fish from any given population with no overall effect on the health and viability of the population, but you can also remove fish faster than they can replenish. The sweet spot is to fish enough to provide a strong economic incentive to protect the habitat while not collecting more than can be replenished.
The Responsible Aquarist
Our belief on how to be as responsible and sustainable an aquarist as possible is to keep educated and use a two-pronged approach when making purchases. Support sustainable wild collection operations that benefit the preservation of natural habitats while also supporting aquaculture operations that reduce pressure on populations that may be threatened with over fishing.
How can you know the difference? Follow the organizations that are leading the pack when it comes to practicing and promoting sustainability. Find the fish that organizations such as Project Piaba and Rising Tide Conservation are working with and make an effort to purchase those fish. Stay knowledgeable on what species are threatened or under pressure in the wild and choose captive bred options, even if they may be a little more expensive. Follow and read reputable aquarium publications to learn about new breakthroughs and learn the context around those breakthroughs.
By staying informed and making the best choices, not only can we ensure the aquarium hobby avoids having a negative impact, we can also work towards creating a true benefit to ecosystems.
Rising Tide Conservation
IUCN Red List
World Wildlife Fund Sustainable Use of Wildlife