Where do marine reef fish come from? They are found all over the world, but the pet trade only samples bits and pieces of these locations. In the U.S., the collecting of reef fish has always been tightly regulated with just a handful of permits for areas off the Florida coast and no collecting on the West Coast. In Hawaii, the state can’t seem to decide what it wants to do. In fact, in the U.S., politics frequently get in the way of what should be done. All it takes is one anti-pet trade fearmonger to gin up support for a total ban on wild-caught reef animals. Don’t be surprised if this happens one day. If that day comes, the marine fish hobby in this country will die off very quickly.
Now, the question arises: Does marine livestock include corals? I am a bit of a purist since I started keeping tropical fish in 1965. Back then, there were precious few marine fish for sale. I remember a 1969 road trip from Virginia Beach, Va. to Baltimore, Md. to look for rare and exotic reef fish. There were four of us and the major find was a 6 in. emperor angelfish. My friend had that fish for 16 years. It was his piscine piéce de résistance in his 20+ aquariums.
Segue to the present day when fish like this are almost as difficult to find as they were back then. Certainly, they are available, but the good ones frequently go to the parts of the world where people will pay more. I would mention Europe, the Middle East, Japan and even wealthy enclaves in China, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. But let me get back to coral.
Coral is definitely marine livestock, but it actually requires less—no, more—wait, less—care than marine fish. See what I did there? Coral is quixotic. When it is maintained properly, it will flourish and grow. You can start with a tiny fragment, or frag, and end up with a giant head of coral. This piece can then be fragged itself and sold to whomever will buy it—sellers do not discriminate.
The question arises: Is there good money to be made in selling coral frags? The answer—for a retailer—is only if you can beat the prices being offered by every garage breeder in your metro area. For example, I see coral frags offered on every local and national selling platform in the country.
Let’s talk about fish—or fishes. Do you know the difference? Everyone at every level of the trade/hobby should. First, it works for both fish and coral. When you look in a tank in your store and it has nothing but cardinal tetras, you can say, "This tank has many fish in it." When you look in a display community tank with, perhaps, 15-20 species, you should say, "This tank has many different fishes in it." Use the word "fish" when speaking of a single species of fish; use the word "fishes" when speaking of more than one species.
So, what’s this got to do with a marine livestock report? More than you realize. While the number of fish you can obtain for sale is not shrinking too much, the number of fishes you can get is shrinking drastically. Today, I might walk into a reef shop and I see five, 10, even 15 different versions of Amphiprion ocellaris—the common clownfish.
I am betting that most retailers have only one species of clownfish for sale. This trend has migrated to corals as well. Coral hobbyists are gluing together frags from different species and calling them "Signature Corals." I call these what they really are—"Frankenstein Corals." Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of the aquatics trade having a great diversity of livestock products to sell. I didn’t yell too loudly when "Glofish" showed up. Likewise, the "Flowerhorn Cichlid" craze has energized sales in select parts of the country.
Let’s get back to basics—marine reef fish. The majority of wild-caught species come from the Philippines and Indonesia. A much smaller segment is collected and shipped from Sri Lanka, the Red Sea, the Australian Barrier Reef, East Africa and scattered locations over the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, fishes from the Philippines and Indonesia are frequently collected with cyanide. This not only damages the fish that are caught, but also the local environment where specimens are collected. Reef fishes collected with cyanide frequently survive for two to four weeks before succumbing to the damage that the poison causes in their gastrointestinal systems. They eat but they cannot assimilate the food properly. They linger and die.
There may be no way to solve this problem because in both Indonesia and the Philippines, the fish collectors are primarily independent entrepreneurs. Many of them are living at subsistence levels, working with family members to keep food on the table and clothes on their backs. And yes, they frequently eat the fish that die before they can be shipped. It would be up to the countries of origin to do something about this, unless, of course, the U.S. stops permitting live fish shipments from these countries. In that case—can you spell DISASTER?
What can the aquatic trade do about this? Well, buying farm- or hatchery-raised marine fish is a good start, but it’s not going to solve the diversity problem. I became interested in the aquarium hobby because there were so many cool fishes that I wanted to keep, maintain, breed and photograph. That pool of species seems to be getting smaller by the day. Yes, of course, there are new species entering the trade, but it’s a trickle of what it once was. Remember the Rift Lake cichlid invasion? Literally hundreds of new species in a span of less than 10 years. Equally impressive species-rich environments were found in the rivers on the Brazilian Shield that gave us the L-number plecos and other related species.
Many of the aquatic shops that exist today are in business because of coral sales. It used to be the only places you could see live coral for sale were Florida and a few scattered select cities around the country: New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Now, coral is everywhere. It is easily grown and fragged, and holds up well in shipment. People love the colors, patterns, shapes and sizes. Coral is easy to feed and not too difficult to maintain, but the equipment required is expensive.
Coral is not for everyone, but it is sustaining many shops around the country. I believe coral can keep the marine hobby alive should the supply of wild-caught reef fish dry up or become tightly regulated. That said, what do I recommend a full-service marine department (or store) sell when it comes to fish?
It’s all about two things: reef-friendly species and predators. People love the big, aggressive piscivore-species like lionfishes, sharks, groupers, triggers and string rays. The second group of fish are those that live in harmony with live corals and small invertebrates are species such as gobies, blennies, small damsels, tangs, pygmy angels, Geniacanthus angels and mandarin dragonets. Small ornamental crabs and shrimp are also highly recommended for reef tanks. Even more important are the mollusks: gastropods and bivalves that clean the gravel and the substrate of unwanted algae and uneaten food particles. There are many animals that can survive and even thrive in a reef tank. Retailers who concentrate on corals and fishes and exclude motile invertebrates from their inventory are making a big mistake.
To sum it up, marine livestock is doing fine, but it’s susceptible to the vagaries and whims of governmental regulations and the eccentricities of consumers. Stay alert to trends in the industry by following new developments on both the international and domestic fronts. Pet Business will be here to help you sort things out. PB
Edward C. Taylor has been in the pet industry for more than 40 years as a retailer, live fish importer and wholesaler, and fish-hatchery manager.