Aquarists And The Declining Reefs

Coral Reef

There is little argument nowadays over whether or not there is any decline in the health of wild coral reefs. The discussion now seems to be more about the speed of decline. Some reefs remain relatively fine, but others are getting into a sorry state.

Scientists tell us about the acidification, or reduction in pH, of the seas and oceans caused by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They also advise of the slow increase in temperature. Both of these, in the long term at least, are going to cause trouble we are advised.

Imported into the US and Europe are huge numbers of marine fish and invertebrates destined for the marine hobby. They are distributed all over these areas for purchase by hobbyists. Does the import of this reef life accelerate the decline in the reefs? I cannot completely answer that question as I don’t have sufficient facts – but at a considered guess I would say ‘no’.

First of all what of collection from the reefs? Huge strides have been made over the last decade in the correction of unwanted collection practices. Once collectors realized that their future jobs were at stake and subject to there being something to collect, they listened. Though there are still problems that have not been cleared in some areas, collection of fish for example is by net and not cyanide. Holding facilities are much improved. Distribution methods – packaging mainly – has been much improved.

In addition to better collection methods, in the reef areas something is being done about the removal of corals. Collectors are now, though not in all areas, propagating them. They are sometimes laid out on vast undersea trays like seedlings in a gardening nursery. As they mature, they are sold on. Each one that matures is one less taken from the reef.

When the packaged livestock reaches its destination, usually wholesale shops and then retail ones, it is handled in a better way. Though there are some distributors and shops that are poor in their handling practices, most are fine. The packages are opened in dimmed or red light and the livestock permitted time to adjust. This is good, and after all it is in the wholesalers and retailers interest to operate good practices and protect the stock which represents their livelihood.

What of aquarists? Are we guilty of anything? There are those in the hobby who should not be called aquarists. They are a minority fortunately. These are the ones who find a fish dead and go and get another without thought as to why or how it died. Just replace it, doesn’t matter! Of course it does matter, whether it is a coral, a fish or whatever. Fortunately the majority of aquarists can rightly call themselves that. From keen novice to very advanced they care for the livestock properly and maintain a high quality environment for them. Is that enough though?

The first thing is that this hobby is for enjoyment, there isn’t any arguing with that, and there’s nothing wrong with it either. The majority of aquarists maintain their aquariums properly – perhaps I could even say respect their aquariums – and enjoy the hobby immensely. Looking at a good marine aquarium it isn’t difficult to see where the enjoyment comes from. The first requirement to protect the wild reef is to care for captive livestock well. Then more will not be needed to replace it, unless the fish or whatever has reached the end of its allotted time.

Many aquarists, once they have gained experience in successful aquarium husbandry, decide to have a go at propagating easy corals, or easy to start with anyway. This decision may be caused simply because a coral or more have become too large and need reducing in size. The parts removed can be grown into new corals and once the aquarist has taken the plunge it is surprising how easy it actually is. The common name for propagation in the hobby is ‘fragging’. This practice can only be good, as the produced new corals can be taken to the LFS or given to an aquarist friend. This means that the demand for corals has reduced by that much, little as it may be.

Other aquarists go into propagation in a bigger way, by having a shallow dedicated tank for the task. This has a higher impact of course and at the same time could be helping to meet the running cost of the aquarist’s aquarium.

Commercial propagation is becoming more known and with far more facilities this has a big impact on imports and thus the wild reef.

It is not only corals that are being propagated by aquarists and commercial interests, fish are also being bred. It wasn’t that long ago that it was thought that breeding marine fish would be nearly impossible. The belief was based on the simple fact that the fish come from a reef situated in the immensity of the sea or ocean. However, more and more fish are appearing that have never seen a wild reef.

There is another plus with this propagation and breeding. This is that the fish and corals that have only ever had an aquarium for a home appear tougher – more resilient – than their wild counterparts.

As expertise within the hobby and commercially increases, so will the availability of livestock from these sources. At the same time the demand on the wild reefs will reduce. There will always be a demand on the wild reefs as it is quite probable that not all livestock is amenable to commercial and home production. In addition, as more and more propagation and breeding occurs there will effectively be a ‘bank’ for the livestock involved, as the knowledge of ‘how to’ once gained will not be lost.

The advance in knowledge by home aquarists sometimes surprises scientists, and many scientists do not dismiss aquarists as ‘amateur fiddlers’ any more. For example there are many scientists – those qualified in the scientific discipline of marine study – who regularly write for hobby magazines. Another example is taken from the book ‘Aquarium Corals’ by Eric H. Borneman. It is the foreword, written by Dr. J. E. N. Veron, who writes… ‘Just as comets are now being discovered by amateur star-watches rather than by professional astronomers, aquarists are now moving into an area of knowledge that was once the exclusive domain of marine biologists’. Of course this doesn’t apply to all of us but nevertheless demonstrates that aquarists are being noticed, and quite rightly so. Aquarists have hands on experience of salt water life.

No-one is going to try and state that all is right within the hobby and the commercial marine world. It isn’t, there are idiots. The majority however are not, they are careful in the choice of livestock and in its maintenance.

I have a positive view of the position of the hobby in relation to the wild reef. We aquarists are not causing Mother Nature much trouble; we are, albeit indirectly, assisting her. As time passes, this assistance will increase. Livestock imports from the wild reefs need to be sensible and at the same time causes of destructive pollution tackled. The wild reefs are truly wondrous natural areas and deserve our respect.