Why the blanket banning of wild caught fish would actually have a negative impact on the environment

At Fishkeeper Scotland we aim to act as responsibly and sustainably as possible in our sourcing of quality and varied livestock from around the world. The vast majority of our regularly stocked and bestselling species are captive bred, whilst a fair amount of the unusual and most interesting species that find their way into your home aquariums and biotopes are wild caught by exporters that we know and trust.

There are real benefits to sourcing captive bred or cultured species for many reasons which will follow in our next blog post, however today we would like to focus on the benefits to the environment and developing communities provided by also collecting from the wild in sustainable quantities.

The #handsoffmyhobby campaign highlights the real threat that is posed to our wonderful hobby of fishkeeping by new Scottish Government proposals to severely limit the keeping of “exotic” species as pets in Scotland. Prior to this announcement they had only consulted biased animal “welfare” charities without also consulting the pet trade or pet owners to hear the other side of the story. We are pleased to say that after contacting Richard Lochhead MSP the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment he has now confirmed to us that he does intend to hear the views of those actually involved in the care of these “exotic” species during the review.

Perspective: Careful hand catching by net of ornamental fish vs destructive trawlers for the food industry

The Scottish Governments review into exotic pets could potentially lead to the blanket ban of the importation of live ornamental fish destined for loving homes, however dead wild caught and seriously threatened species such as Cod, Haddock & Tuna destined for the food trade would still be allowed – what’s the difference? Well actually there is a big difference:

  • About 85% of fish caught is used for human consumption. The remainder is converted into fish-meal and oil used mainly for animal feed and for farmed fish. (United Nations Food & Agriculture Organisation)

  • 92,200,000 tons of food fish is caught on average annually compared to approximately 150 tons of ornamental marine fish worldwide. Therefore fish caught for the aquarium trade account for less than 0.0000016% of the entire annual catch. (Incorrect decimal placing updated 23/2)

  • Bottom trawling (for food fish) is the ocean equivalent of clear-cutting a forest. Ships drag huge, heavy nets held open by doors over the seafloor to catch fish that dwell near the bottom of the ocean. In the process, they destroy everything else, including deep sea coral and sponges (Oceana)

  • Ornamental fish are caught delicately by hand and small nets on a non-intensive scale by divers and fishermen. There is no by catch or surplus as everything that is caught is live and transferred to water tanks.

  • Maldive fishermen get $500 a kilo for supplying live marine fish for the aquarium trade. They would get just $6 a kilo for the same fish if destined for the dinner table. (OATA)

Project Piaba: Buy a fish, save a tree

This initiative in the Barcelos region of Brazil, which has also been supported by charities such as ZSL, encourages the local population to supply fish such as the Cardinal Tetra to the ornamental trade.

"Research has shown that the extraction of the ornamental fish from the area is biologically sustainable and has no minimal negative impact on the land and waters of the region. In fact, because the wild-caught ornamental fish trade has minimal detrimental effect on the area, the industry of wild-caught ornamental fish can help to support local communities by offering a long-term, sustainable source of income that establishes environmental stewardship in the land" – Project Piaba

In essence the local population are taught how to make a sustainable living from their native fish species which aren’t suitable for food and would otherwise be of no value to them. Realising the value of protecting the fish’s environment leads to bumper populations that can be sustainably harvested. The alternative could well be rural-urban migration and mass clearing of the rainforest in this area for logging or agriculture which would have a massively detrimental effect on the environment including the rivers through soil erosion. This has been seen elsewhere in the Amazon and in some small part the “exotic” fish trade is helping to stop the spread.

Intervention done correctly: Clown Loach in Indonesia

Clown Loaches are a staple fixture in tropical community aquariums however they are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity which leads to a high demand for wild caught specimens. However the Indonesian government rightly stepped in and ruled it illegal to catch and export the adult fish in order to protect the breeding population. As a result there is a healthy trade in juvenile fish and the collectors have learnt methods to catch only the sizes that they require, leaving the remainder undisturbed to continue breeding healthy populations.

Coral reefs: “A great material to build with”

In Sri Lanka and parts of India entire sections of coral reef have been mined as a cheap source to make cement for the construction industry. If a higher value was attached to the reef through sustainable practices it would still be there.

We have worked with fishermen in Indonesia who understand the value of their reefs and are working to create additional artificial reefs to expand the local populations of species in which they are fishing. They are even working with neighbouring communities to rotate fishing seasons to restrict their catching to a non intensive level.

These pods (pictured on a recent trip) actually provide such a high level of protection for the fish that they can breed in larger numbers and avoid the dangers of predation and ocean currents. Equally it is much easier for the fishermen to catch them when it is time to harvest the populations that it keeps any stress on the fish to an absolute minimum.

In summary, the export of sustainably wild caught ornamental fish incentivises local communities to protect their aquatic environments and provides a better living for developing communities compared to other destructive fishing or farming practises, resulting in less pressure on overall fish stocks.

A blanket ban on “exotic pets” would harm these communities, environments and species, as well as an estimated 250,000 fishkeepers in Scotland.

We will publish another update on the steps that we are also taking to encourage captive bred and cultured livestock, in particular for species in high demand.

In the meantime, please remember to support the #handsoffmyhobby campaign if you haven’t already done so… Your fish depend on you!

  1. Sign the petition at Change.org

  2. Visit the dedicated #handsoffmyhobby campaign website for further educate yourself on this very important and pressing matter – www.handsoffmyhobby.org

  3. Write to your local MSP and Richard Lochhead who is the Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs. You can find their contact details on the Scottish Government website including postal and email addresses. Contact them for free via www.writetothem.com. You could also contact them directly via their social media accounts! Remember – they want your votes too.