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The Dark Hobby - Marine Aquariums

Before I even start, it’s going to be important to take a step back and evaluate what you know about fish. 

As it seems, Finding Nemo, could be a spot closer to reality that you’d expect.
At some point we have all believed the good old “fish have a three second memory” myth. Three seconds isn’t a long time. Marine Biologist Dr. Culum Brown, an expert in the evolution of fish cognition, behavior and ecology, categorically dispels this myth: “Fish are more intelligent than they appear. In many areas, such as memory, their cognitive powers match or exceed those of "higher" vertebrates, including nonhuman primates.”
Fishes complex social behavior, learning ability and even community structures are now widely accepted in marine biologist circles. So we are not dealing with mentally dead robotic creatures here. We are dealing with living, intelligent, social creatures. OK, I’m glad we got that out of the way. Now for my rant…the collecting of live fish (and other ocean critters) for marine aquariums. This is surprisingly BIG business along our coastline. Our coast is riddled with collectors, for commercial and non-commercial purposes who have for many years known about it’s rich intertidal variety. Most these collectors come from out of town and not necessary just locals.
Many marine conservation circles refer to marine aquariums as “The Dark Hobby” and rightly so. Here are just a few snippets of information folks should know about the marine aquarium “hobby”
The unsustainable demand for marine wildlife is driven by the astronomical mortality rates associated with trying to keep these animals captive in tiny glass boxes. Nine fish may die for every one that makes it to a hobby tank. Some experts estimate a 95% mortality rate, marine aquarium enthusiasts put the figure closer to 70% …either way, even if the animal lived for 5 years, it’s still essentially dead to the ecosystem from the moment it was removed from the sea.   
  • Compared to fresh water aquariums where almost 100% of the fish are bred in captivity, in marine aquariums less than 5% of the fish are bred in captivity.
  • In hobby tanks, most wildlife will die within weeks or months from stress related disease; from cramped or failed environments; from improper food; and, generally because the vast majority of those attempting to keep them are too inexperienced.
  • Reporting fraud in the trade is rampant and widely acknowledged. Experts estimate the true number of fish and creatures taken by the trade to be at least double what they officially report.
  • And most bizarre is the notion that it is illegal to collect coral from any of the intertidal areas along our coastline. This is great but it is perfectly legal to come along and collect any other living organism, from fish to nudibranchs to shrimp that live on the coral. Bizarre isn’t it? This is a bit like saying, Kruger National Park is a protected area, but hey, go inside and help yourself to any of the animals and trees that live there.
Oddly, in KwaZulu-Natal you also need special permits to catch and keep indigenous wild birds, reptiles and mammals, but not marine life. For a mere R95 at your local post office, you have a license to help yourself to our biodiversity.
I’ll give you a real example of this and the often ignorant thinking behind this hobby. A licensed collector I recently spoke to on the beach proudly told me that he caught a few Nudibrancs and Cleaner Wrasse in one of the tidal pools for his tank. Cleaner Wrasse, besides being very pretty fish, are also very specific feeders. They simply do not survive in captivity; they just slowly starve to death over a period of 30 days as it’s almost impossible for a fish tank to replicate the complex environment and feeding requirements of these fish. Nudibranchs, well even the worlds top marine biologists hardly understand Nudibranch Taxonomy nevermind what species we are looking ator what their food source is. But they get taken anyway. Often. And it’s legal.
So what do we do about it? Please don’t support this industry, don't start a marine tank on a whim, go freshwater instead, its easier and more sustainable. Don’t support pet stores that sell live marine fish (or other marine organisms.) If you have friends and family with marine tanks or who collect, apply some gentle peer pressure, educate them, most people don't even consider the impact they have when doing this. And finally, report any suspected commercial collecting you see on the beach to KZN Wildlife the moment you see it.
The only long-term solution is to get legislation changed and try getting a better understanding of our coastline’s marine life to guide future legislation.
Footnote: Since publication of this article, we have been in contact with the NSPCA's head of wildlife crimes. The hobby is cruel and this could be a loophole in terms of the Animal Protection Act (taking a wild animal to captivity where it will starve to death is indeed cruel) - however, as it turns out, fish and marine life are excluded from this act as they are seen as resources NOT animals. Fish and management of marine life falls under the Marine Living Resources once you step on the beach, cruelty is legally allowed. This is a huge problem. The ocean and its vast biodiversity is NOT a mere resource, these are living animals!  


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