The recent appointment of Robert Wintner to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s Board of Directors heralds a new threat to the reef aquarium industry and hobby.
Wintner, also known as ‘Snorkel Bob’, has been an outspoken opponent of the collection of fishes for the aquarium trade in Hawaii, campaigning for an outright ban on the collection and exportation of Hawaiian reef fishes. His description of the reef aquarium hobby is full of negative hyperbole and questionable facts, painting an over-the-top picture of the hobby as being tremendously destructive of reef life.
With his appointment to the board of Sea Shepherd he is extending his opposition to the reef aquarium trade to one of worldwide elimination.
The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, initially named “Earth Force Society”, was formed in 1977, after its founder, Paul Watson, was expelled from the board of Greenpeace over disagreements about his direct action activism.
Over the years Sea Shepherd has engaged in various campaigns opposing Drift-netting, Seal hunting, Whaling, Shark-finning, and Dolphin hunting, these have often included direct action which has led to some critics describing their actions as piracy or terrorism.
For more about the organisation see: http://www.seashepherd.org/
See also the Wikepedia entry for Sea Shepherd, which details its history along with a record of the organisation’s various campaigns.
Sea Shepherd’s Position on the Aquarium Trade
Since his appointment Wintner has issued a statement on Sea Shepherd’s position on the aquarium trade, entitled, “Wildlife Species are a Public Trust, Not Disposable Trinkets”
“The aquarium trade serves a dark hobby, confining coral reef wildlife and destroying reefs around the world. Stripping reefs for an amusement industry is theoretically no different than capturing cetaceans for commercial shows. 98% of aquarium fish are wild caught. Many people may not reflect on the colorful fish in glass tanks used as furnishings for offices, bistros, waiting rooms, or homes—and some people may assume those fish are bred in captivity. The fact is that 2% of those fish are captive-bred and 98% are taken from the wild. This devastating practice results in severe mortality rates from the point of capture through handling, shipping, and acclimation. Coral damage is well documented and often witnessed with viewers observing anchors, chains, and nets in the coral and collectors breaking coral in pursuit of a few more bucks.
The aquarium trade is covered in verbiage, but trafficking in reef wildlife for the pet trade is not sustainable or “captive-bred whenever possible.” 40 million reef fish and invertebrates supply 1.5 million aquariums around the world, annually. Wildlife species are a public trust, not disposable trinkets. Marine reef systems are intricately balanced, with each species performing a role in reef maintenance and balance. Multiband Butterflyfish do not leave their reef by choice. Once stripped of Multiband Butterflies, the species is lost to that reef indefinitely. The Hawaiian cleaner wrasse is a charismatic, vital species endemic to Hawaii. They set up cleaning stations where many species gather for grooming in a social setting. Hawaiian cleaner wrasses die in thirty days of captivity without 30-40 other fish to clean, yet they ship out daily for retail sale. Many reefs in Hawaii are now vulnerable to parasite loading. Yellow tangs are herbivores, grazing on algae dawn to dusk to prevent reef suffocation, yet they ship out by the millions to enhance aquarium trade profits. Hawaii’s Director of Natural Resources should not be an aquarium collector. Nor should reef species be sacrificed to support any amusement industry, including sales of tanks, stands, lights, tickets, or decorative trinkets. Under pressure worldwide from acidification, climate change, and associated events—like crown of thorns starfish invasions triggered by warmer water—coral reef systems must maintain optimal immune systems with a full balance of species.The staggering death rate of captive reef wildlife occurs mostly in the 30-day span between capture and chemical error in a home aquarium. Many of these species live for decades in the wild, providing reef function and reef balance.
Hawaii is the third largest supplier of reef fish in the U.S. aquarium trade, accounting for empty reefs and vanishing reef species. Florida takes millions of reef individuals annually, even as society scapegoats the invasive lionfish, a voracious predator introduced by the aquarium trade to east coast and Caribbean reefs. Lionfish did not reach the Atlantic on their own.
Aquarium trade trafficking leaves reefs unbalanced, degraded, and depleted. No factor in reef decline can absolve any other factor- acidification, runoff, climate change, or any other negative impact on reef health cannot justify aquarium extraction. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society seeks to stop global trafficking in live fish for hobby or display markets.”
What should the reef aquarium hobby do in response?
The reef aquarium hobby and industry needs to demonstrate that they are not wantonly destroying reef animals. Fishes and corals can, and do, live out their natural lifespan, in reef aquaria, free of the danger of predation. In the case of corals this can be a lifespan stretching into decades during which time many additional colonies may be created through asexual reproduction, which can in turn, be distributed back into the trade, reducing the quantities harvested from the wild.
The aquarium industry is an important source of income for some of the least well off peoples in the world who live in the supply countries. Increasingly corals are being maricultured for the trade in the supply countries, reducing the impact on the wild.
Indeed, as I try and point out whenever I can, the reef aquarium hobby has an important role in educating people about the dangers of climate change. Most people are never going to visit a tropical reef; by bringing a small slice of the reef into the home we can show non hobbyists the marvellous animals that we are in danger of losing to higher water temperature and acidification, helping to bring awareness of the realities of mankind’s affect on the planet
The aquarium hobby is not perfect but neither is it anywhere near as dark as Sea Shepherd would like to make out, if aquarium losses where anywhere near as high as suggested the hobby would have shut down long ago. Doubtless we can improve the lives of the fishes, coral, and other invertebrates that are central to the hobby and prevent any unnecessary losses through education.
Organisations such as SAIA, the Sustainable Aquarium Industry Association, exist to help educate both the hobby and the trade by offering information on ‘Best Practises’ to ensure high standards of husbandry.
Do your bit for the hobby, show off your reef aquarium to as many non-hobbyists as possible, research potential new acquisitions before purchase, learn as much as possible about the reef animals that you keep to ensure their long-term survival, and support SAIA in its efforts to educate and inform.
Wintner’s statement on Sea Shepherd’s position on the aquarium trade.
Sea Shepard board of directors.