- Fishkeeping has been around for centuries, and the amount of people who want to start keeping fish grows year after year. However, many newcomers to the hobby don’t carry out research to ensure the fish they’re buying have been sourced ethically.
- The disturbing truth is that a large portion of marine fish are not raised or caught ethically. Some are wild-caught, meaning they’ve been taken from their natural environment to be sold onto aquarists. However, not all collection of fish in the wild is unethical — it depends of how they were caught, whether that species is in decline, and a few other factors.
- In this commentary piece for Mongabay, Robert Woods, fish enthusiast and owner of Fishkeeping World, explains how to ensure that you buy aquarium fish ethically.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Fishkeeping has been around for centuries, and the amount of people who want to start keeping fish grows year after year. However, many newcomers to the hobby don’t carry out research to ensure the fish they’re buying have been sourced ethically. Instead, many people just turn up at the local pet store and buy the most colorful fish they can find without a second thought, usually based on the price tag.
The disturbing truth is that a large portion of marine fish are not raised or caught ethically. Some are wild-caught, meaning they’ve been taken from their natural environment to be sold onto aquarists. However, not all collection of fish in the wild is unethical — it depends of how they were caught, whether that species is in decline, and a few other factors.
Here’s how to ensure that you buy aquarium fish ethically.
The debate around wild-caught vs captive-bred fish
Up to 90% of freshwater species in aquariums are bred in captivity. The beauty behind this is that they are already used to tank conditions and don’t need an acclimation period, we don’t deplete numbers in the wild, and we can preserve species that might be going extinct or that wouldn’t survive in the wild (for example, albino species).
Most people accept that captive-bred fish are much more ethical than sourcing wild-caught fish. This might lead you to assume that all wild-caught fish automatically equal unethically sourced fish, but this isn’t necessarily the case. There are many wild fish whose populations are abundant in rainforests and flood plains.
Many wild-caught fish are caught in areas where the water levels fluctuate according to seasons, like killifish, and once the water dries up they will inevitably die. Collecting these excess fish gives local people a source of income, so long as their natural habitats are protected and not destroyed.
There is, however, a darker side to wild-caught fish. Some fish are caught using chemicals. While this practice is more common in the food trade, it does still occur in this industry and is a worry. Cyanide is a chemical that stuns fish and makes them easier to catch.
Not only does it stun fish that fishermen are trying to catch, but it also kills a large proportion of surrounding fish and damages coral reefs. Fishing with cyanide is mostly banned worldwide, but laws are not strictly enforced, so it’s easy for fishermen to get around this, unfortunately.
You can therefore see how important it is to ask, when you buy wild-caught fish, not only how they have been caught but also where they have come from and what methods were used to catch them.
If the pet shop isn’t sure or won’t offer you any insight into this question, avoid them and find a more reputable place to source your fish. Small independent fish stores should know exactly where their fish are coming from and often tend to care much more about the animals’ welfare than major chain brands.
This is a really simple point to stick by: If a species is endangered, don’t buy one for your aquarium. While there are some people who will buy endangered fish to try and keep the population going, with the intention to release them, the EU found that this is not helpful because the captive-bred fish have a limited gene pool, altered behavioral patterns, and are typically more aggressive.
Sourcing marine fish
If you want to keep a marine tank, one of the main problems you’re likely to come up against is how to purchase and source your fish ethically. Unlike freshwater species, the vast majority of marine fish have not yet been bred in captivity. Only 330 species of saltwater fish have been bred successfully in captivity.
Many saltwater fish are wholly unsuitable for aquarium life: they require such specific conditions and feeding regimens that they simply don’t survive in the aquarium.
The best way to support the practice and show your solidarity against unethical practices such as cyanide poisoning is to not keep marine fish. Instead, choose a freshwater tropical tank. If you’re set on keeping a marine tank, only source fish that can either be bred in captivity or you’re certain have been sourced responsibly and are not endangered.
Ensuring your fish’s tank matches the natural environment
Once you’ve bought a group of fish and you’re sure you’ve done all you can to make sure they have been ethically bred or sourced responsibly, the ethics debate doesn’t end there. You will then be responsible for ensuring that your fish live a happy life in a tank that is large enough for them, is regularly maintained, and matches their natural habitat as closely as possible.
Many people will just assume they only need to find out the correct tank size for their fish, and the rest can be set up however they like, just as long as it’s nice to look at. This is simply untrue. Ensuring your fishes’ tank conditions replicate the natural habitat your fish prefer is essential to their health and wellbeing.
Some species need plenty of plants, rockery, and driftwood, especially if they are quite a timid species. If you don’t provide this, they will live in a state of constant stress, which is not an ethical way of keeping fish at all.
Other species require really fine sand like substrate if they have long fins that can easily be damaged, or barbels which they use to sift through the sand and look for food. Again, if you simply just set up your tank based on the color gravel you like, and add one of these fish, they will not be happy for long.
If you only take away one piece of information from this article, it would be to make sure you are informed. You can never ask too many questions. Knowledge is power and you should check on a case-by-case basis each time you buy a fish or group of fish, whether they are captive-bred or wild-caught, and if it’s the latter, how and from where they were caught. Be willing to pay slightly more money for fish that you know have been farmed or caught sustainably and ethically.
Robert Woods is a fish enthusiast and owner of Fishkeeping World.
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