Coral Reef Wildlife Trafficking for The Aquarium Trade

  • Over 11 million reef fish and millions of other reef dwellers are taken from the world’s reefs each year to meet the demand of 700,000 U.S. aquarium hobbyists. Those figures are doubled for reef wildlife lost to hobbyist demand globally.
  • Over 1 Million of those reef animals are taken from Hawaii's coral reefs, making Hawaii the world’s third largest supplier of reef wildlife for U.S. saltwater aquarium hobbyists.
  • The unsustainable demand for reef wildlife is driven by the astronomical mortality rates associated with trying to keep wildlife captive in tiny glass boxes. Nine fish may die for every one that makes it to a hobby tank.
  • 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.
  • Unlike freshwater aquariums which contain nearly 100% captive-bred and raised animals, nearly all the wildlife kept in saltwater aquariums is captured from coral reefs, with fewer than 5% bred in captivity. Greed drives the endless plundering of the world's reefs and inflicts needless suffering and death on tens of millions of wild animals annually.
  • Worldwide, the aquarium trade is decimating wildlife populations, causing local disappearance of species that once were common and upsetting the delicate balance of fragile coral reef ecosystems. Over millennia coral reefs evolved to optimal balance to ensure survival and continuing function as nursery. Left unmonitored, the aquarium trade will cause species extinctions and contribute to ecosystem collapse.
  • Hawaii reefs, which are quite narrow in scope, are visibly suffering from aquarium trade exploitation. Aquarium catch reports, fish surveys and monitoring reports, and both resident and visitor “eyes on the reef” confirm that local populations and individual species are crashing.
  • Coral reefs are left unbalanced as natural populations are altered and key species depleted. Algae suffocation now threatens many Hawaii reefs.
  • Many fish species collected in Hawaii are endemic, occurring nowhere else in the world. Most of the animals taken are herbivores, algae eaters essential to coral reef health. All species collected are vital to reef balance.
  • Coral and live rock extraction is 100% illegal on Hawaii reefs, yet for a $50 annual license and permit, commercial collectors have access to every living animal on every reef in Hawaii that isn't protected - virtually 99% of Hawaii's coral reefs are impacted by this industry.
  • The most heavily oppressed fish in Hawaii is the yellow tang. Hundreds of thousands of their young are taken by the trade annually and they are among the top 10 fish most popular fish in the U.S. market. In the areas where they’re heavily collected, their populations are down by 70 – 90%.
  • Yellow Tangs will live an average age of 11 years on a protected reef. Many will survive for 20 – 30 years and their full potential lifespan is over 40 years.
  • In captivity, some yellow tangs may survive a year or more, but the vast majority will likely be killed off within the first month or two of capture from shipping and other stressors, starvation and hobbyist mistakes.
  • An estimated 1% of wild yellow tangs will live to be at least 5 to 7 years old, and as an adult fish, will spawn for the first time and contribute to the survival of their species. The other 99% will have played key roles in the ecosystem, like maintaining the proper algae balance, and, ultimately contributing to the food web.
  • Hawaii’s butterflyfishes are another example of species decimated by the aquarium trade because of their beauty and fragility. Many species of butterflyfish feed primarily on corals and starve to death in captivity. They are also especially fragile in transport and many are shipped out with no guarantee to arrive alive. Their wild populations have plummeted.
  • New aquariums need to be cycled, an essential process requiring organic materials and 2 - 6 weeks to develop the chemistry and proper levels of beneficial bacteria for nutrient cycling. Live rock, sand and fish are used to accomplish this. When fish are used, the word "torture" frequently occurs in online marine aquarium sites describing the process, but that doesn't stop the so-called experts and fish sellers from recommending the practice.
  • Over 260 species of Hawaii’s reef fish and creatures are taken by the aquarium trade with no concern for ecosystem impacts or animal welfare. Reef wildlife is treated as inert products with “shelf lives” rather than as fragile living creatures, and the trade is managed by the state as if they are a limitless resource with no consequences to the coral reef ecosystems from which they are harvested. Also ignored are Hawaii's communities and residents who rely upon healthy and beautiful coral reefs for their socio-economic well being.
  • 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.
  • Throughout the Indo-pacific, the aquarium trade is also having disastrous effects. At least 25 - 30 million animals, representing over 2,000 species, are traded each year, over-collecting is rampant and many fish are caught using cyanide. 90% of the reefs show missing groups of fish and rare species.

Hawaiian Cleaner WrasseSacrificed for brief entertainment in a tank, the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse, is known to starve in 30 days without adequate populations to clean, yet they ship out regularly, leaving Hawaii reef fish susceptible to parasites.
Photo: Robert Wintner

Oahu Collection Reports (2000 - 2007)

Big Island Collection Reports (2000 - 2007)

Species Rankings and Summary (1980 - 2005)