Scientists are struggling to raise tropical fish on farms so that fishermen who now poison coral reefs to catch them will no longer be needed
Tropical fish tanks in restaurants, hospitals and homes evoke feelings of tranquility and beauty. They even lower stress levels prior to medical procedures and encourage Alzheimer’s patients to eat sufficiently. But what’s good for humans may be bad for the sea.
Most tropical fish sold in pet stores come from reefs in Indonesia and the Philippines, where fishermen stun the colorful dwellers with squirts of sodium cyanide. The potent nerve toxin causes the fish to float up out of the reefs so they can be easily scooped up, but it can also injure or kill them as well as trigger coral bleaching.
“What I find ironic is that people love the ocean. They want to keep a slice of it in their living room. But they’re killing the coral reefs,” says Søren Hansen a co-founder of Sea and Reef Aquaculture, LLC, in Franklin, Me., one of only a handful of tropical fish farmers in the U.S.
Why not breed the saltwater fish on farms everywhere? Most fish in freshwater tanks—which are much more common, less expensive and easier to maintain—are indeed farm-raised. But breeding saltwater fish in an industrial aquaculture facility requires re-creating the coral reef ecosystem, a technology that is just moving out of its infancy.
Improvement is urgently needed. Tropical fish sales are estimated at $200 million to $300 million a year worldwide. The U.S. imports about 11 million of the fish annually, out of 20 million sold globally. Estimates suggest that 70 to 90 percent of captured fish die before they ever reach a tank, and more perish within their first six months in captivity. “It’s an overlooked industry,” says Frank Baensch, a tropical fish farmer in Honolulu, adding that “If I wanted to, I could bring in species on the Red List [of endangered species] and nobody would know.”