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The Ethics of Reefkeeping Revisited

Contributed by James Wiseman, September - 2000

No one wants to feel guilty about keeping a reef aquarium. But on the other hand, we as hobbyists cannot ignore the fact that the majority of the fish and corals in our care were taken directly from the wild. This editorial will discuss the different sides of this issue, and hopefully, you will be able to draw your own conclusions about your reef, and perhaps change some of the ways you do things - in a way that makes you feel better, or at least more conscious about the health and well being of the "critters" in your care. Now, please keep in mind that the purpose of this editorial is not to berate or criticize hobbyists (I am one afterall) but rather to inform: the purpose of . Thankfully, as a responsible hobbyist, it is possible to keep a beautiful reef aquarium and be "guilt free" as long as you remember what you have, and that every animal in your tank is a precious life that is in your care, and treat them as such. That means it's your duty to: learn what you need to know about your "charges" before buying them, buy captive bred animals whenever possible, and most importantly, keep what you have alive and growing and share what you have with others (both your animals and information) .

(The authors 150g reef aquarium)

I think one fact that might help people appreciate how important their tank inhabitants are is that all hard corals (LPS and SPS) as well as all Tridacna clams are CITES Appendix II animals. CITES stands for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species -- with the key word there being "Endangered." CITES App. If animals and plants can not be commercially traded AT ALL, but App. II organisms can be traded with express written permission (permits) from the exporting nation. What does this mean? Well, it means that the international community considers these things to be pretty ecologically important. If they do, then so should we. We need to treat corals and other reef critters as we would other animals in our care (birds for example), NOT as disposable decorations that can be easily replaced if they die. Another fact that should drive this point home is that reefs have suffered a tremendous amount of damage over the last 2 years, due to many factors. I don't need to reiterate that the reefs are in trouble. The reason I mention it though, is that I often hear the argument that there are so many other factors damaging the reefs (ships, runoff, El Niño, etc), our hobby has a small impact, we shouldn't worry about it. This is precisely why we should worry about it -- if the reefs are under a tremendous amount of pressure, shouldn't we do whatever we can to help them out?

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion - both within the reefkeeping community, and outside it - surrounding the collection of wild corals. The US government has formed the Coral Reef Taskforce, and assigned a subgroup to investigate the ecological impact of collection of "coral reef species." Recently, the CRTF recommended to congress that the importation of all CITES App II reef species shall cease unless it can be proven that they were harvested sustainably. This will take effect one year after the recommendation is voted into law…and believe me, it will become law…how could anyone vote against that? So what does this mean? The industry has one year to really learn to become coral farmers, and they're going to need a LOT of help -- hopefully we the hobbyists (who collectively have THE most experience in coral propagation) can help them.

Besides concerns voiced by the US government, the hobby has taken a lot of "heat" from environmental groups as well, but has responded in kind by forming the Marine Aquarium Council, a non-profit organization charged with "educating and certifying those engaged in the collection and care of ornamental marinelife from reef to aquarium." (MAC Webpage) This is certainly a step in the right direction, and we the hobbyists should support MAC.

So now that we've discussed some of the problems, what can we do about them? Well, for starters we can certainly talk about it -- and that's what we've been doing on the discussion board recently -- but I think we need to go further than just talking. We need to "put our money where our mouth is" so to speak. This of course means changing the way we set up and choose livestock for our aquariums. In an ideal world, we would be able to set up a tank with only captive bred livestock…however we are not quite to that ideal world yet. In the mean time, we can do everything possible to minimize the impact our aquariums have on the environment. Now how to do that?   Well, I'll try to offer a few ideas and examples.

First-off, try to imagine setting up an aquarium in the future, when wild-caught corals and liverock are not available. You would have to get aquacultured liverock from the Caribbean, but hopefully we will be able to get diverse aquacultured rock from the indo-pacific as well. Where would you get your corals? You would probably get your corals from a coral farm, either a company here in the US that farms corals, or better yet, from an indo-pacific coral farm! Another option is to get coral fragments from either your friends, or through your local aquarium society. My aquarium society has put together a holding system just for coral frag trading. Club members can take out corals, if they put in some replacements, or else contribute money to the club for the system's maintenance. This works really well, because club members can prune their corals when they need to, and leave the frags in a safe place until another hobbyist comes along who wants to take them. It really facilitates the trading process. Just so that people don't think I've gone off the deep end, let me show you a tank that I set up two years ago. Shortly after setting up the tank, I decided not to buy any more wild corals. This is what it looks like:

(The right side of the reef -- a large majority of the corals are captive grown)

Thirty - five out of the forty - one corals are captive grown, with frags coming from all over the United States. The clams all came from clam farms. If you look to the lower left of the picture, you can even see a captive grown "frogspawn" coral that was grown from a tiny bud on the base of the adult. At one time I had five, but now, a number of my hobbyist friends have this coral as well. Hopefully these pictures and ideas will start people thinking that it IS possible to have a great tank that we feel good about, if only we shift our thinking just a little bit away from the status quo.

So to wrap up, I'd like to say thanks for reading this far…  I know this has been a long editorial, but it's our first in this new feature and I'd like to get things off to a good start. We hope that this new part of will become a great forum for everyone to discuss the important issues that we face in our hobby, not just about ecology, but about all sorts of things . Enjoy, and happy reefkeeping!

James Wiseman

Created by liquid
Last modified 2006-11-24 17:29