Are Saltwater Aquariums Bad for the Environment?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

I used to be an enthusiastic aquarist, and only the lack of space where I live now is keeping me from starting a new one.  But ever since I was a kid, I dreamed of having a saltwater aquarium; having grown up going to Puerto Galera every summer, I wanted to bring back a piece of that wonderful ocean experience with me. Turns out it may have been a good thing I never did get one.

Why? Well, I was wondering about this magnificent dragon-like fish, the ribbon eel, and in researching it, found some disturbing facts.  I was wondering what had happened to this fish, as I used to see a lot of them in aquariums in the 70’s and 80’s, but now I don’t; and I used to see them in Batangas when we’d go snorkeling there, and up to now I’ve yet to see one again in Anilao. Last time I saw a ribbon eel in the wild was in Bauan, off the El Capitan resort (now Divers’ Sanctuary), back in 1994.

Have they gotten scarcer? Have they simply lost popularity with aquarium keepers? Or worse – have they been overfished?

The latter may just be the answer. Up to now, most saltwater fish are sourced from the wild, unlike freshwater aquarium fish which now come from farms. Government officials will usually say this is good for the fishing communities, as it gives the fishermen an additional source of livelihood; but on the other hand it encourages destructive practices such as using cyanide to stun the fish (killing other organisms in the area), and overfishing the sensitive reef habitats.  (Here’s another article on cyanide fishing, this one focusing on the Hong Kong food market, and another from Australia, on why it’s a bad idea to buy cyanided fish.).

If you’ve ever gone snorkeling or diving, you’ll notice that some of the most beautiful fish are only seen in ones and twos, scattered across the reef.  In other words, there aren’t too many of those species on any one reef. Giving fishermen incentive to catch more of them – which is exactly what market forces do – can lead to unsustainable harvesting.

From an environmentalist’s point of view, a saltwater aquarium has many negatives: it encourages the destructive catching of reef fish; it adds to electrical consumption by its need for pumps, filters and lights, and in temperate regions, heating; and because some fish like the ribbon eel are very sensitive and hard to keep, fish mortality is often high.  Which in turn can drive even more buying, driving the cycle of overharvesting.

So: goodbye to my plans for a saltwater aquarium, and I’ll just use the money to get to Batangas. Where I’ll see more than I can keep in any aquarium, even if I were as rich as Henry Sy.  And when I do get space for a new aquarium, I’ll be happy to stock it with gouramis.