A Dangerous Tide

The aquarium trade is continually threatened by far-reaching legislation and regulations driven by ideology instead of science.




The world of aquarium fish gets smaller every day. International agreements on trade, endangered species and invasive species affect which species of fish may move across national borders. While national and even state laws and regulations increasingly limit what can be imported, laws passed down at the local level may similarly affect worldwide access to some popular species. We at the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) are regularly involved in discussions and negotiations at all these levels, and their interrelationship has never been greater.


Recently, I traveled to Hawaii to support local fishermen and scientists opposed to a ban on aquarium fishing. A week later, I attended the Aquarealm conference in Singapore, where some of the world’s leaders in the ornamental fish trade engaged in discussion, dialogue and presentations by industry experts and government officials.


Because of its thorough inspection standards, Singapore is heavily involved as a farming and transshipping location in providing aquacultured fish to the world. A major topic of discussion at Aquarealm was the proliferation of laws and regulations that have a global impact. Officials from the Singapore government veterinary inspection services presented on how their inspection regimes are designed to satisfy international scrutiny. Ornamental Fish International (OFI), an aquarium trade association, also presented on several subjects, including the direction and impacts of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listings on the attending businesses and trade in general.


What was clear to attendees is that marketing campaigns by well-funded animal rights groups are far more influential with party countries than is scientific data. Rather than being used as a powerful tool for balancing industry interests with government oversight for the benefit of the world’s citizens, CITES listings are increasingly used to advance an activist agenda.


Federal activity in the United States, a major importer of Singapore’s fish, was another topic of concern at AquaRealm. These fish have a very low margin of profit for Singapore businesses, which work hard to build relationships and differentiate themselves. During a plenary session, PIJAC explained that three Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests within the past year to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) have sought data on sources, pricing and other proprietary information that would undermine those relationships. As the USFWS only contacted affected U.S. businesses requesting comment, there is little chance that businesses in Singapore could even have been aware of an issue that could profoundly affect them.


Far-Reaching Effects

Actions need not be federal in order to have a dramatic impact on the aquarium trade. The state of Hawaii has been debating Senate Bill 1240, a bill that would eliminate the issuance of new fishing licenses for aquarium collecting. Couched as an effort to protect reefs, despite the fact that substantial scientific evidence demonstrates that the aquarium fishery is sustainable and has a minimal impact, this bill passed the state legislature. We have undertaken a massive educational effort and the governor has indicated his intent to veto the bill, but as of this writing things are far from resolved, as the legislature could still override that veto.


If enacted, the effects of Senate Bill 1240 would quickly be felt across the aquarium industry; yellow tangs, which have stable and plentiful populations in the wild, are difficult to aquaculture and come almost exclusively from Hawaii. These popular fish would immediately become difficult to obtain and would disappear from most aquariums within the next few years.


Even county-level actions can have international repercussions. PIJAC has tracked several years of actions by Hawaii County to make the collection or shipment of aquarium fish so cost-prohibitive and/or so detrimental to the welfare of the fish that catching or exporting them would be virtually impossible. Just last year, county officials considered a measure that would have required fishers to pay thousands of dollars for their licenses. They also considered requiring exporters to ship the fish with such large volumes of water that it would have been cost-prohibitive.


This latter feel-good measure was just one of the anti-science measures considered; another required feeding the fish shortly before shipping them, which would result in fouling of the fishes’ water. These ordinances are clearly ineffective and harmful, showing that ideology—not biology—were at the core of the county’s push to damage the live fishing industry.


My takeaway from these interactions is simple: There is no such thing any longer as a truly local law for the responsible pet trade. Businesses must belong to trade associations that can represent their interests and communicate with those trade associations to inform them of local measures. Conversely, trade associations must rely on members to be their eyes and ears, and both sides must work together to be subject matter experts and to combat bad information.


Trade associations must also remain aware of legislative and regulatory efforts internationally and communicate and cooperate with other associations.


Join the trade association that best represents you, provide them your expertise, communicate with them regularly and demand that they communicate with other associations and interest groups. PB


Robert Likins is the Vice President of Government Affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC). PIJAC advocates for the responsible pet trade at the local, state and federal levels.


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