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."
The demand for tropical fish soared in 2004, when Finding Nemo—an animated movie about father and son clown fish, Marlin and Nemo—prompted a buying frenzy. "Every kid wanted a Nemo and Dory [a regal tang that also stars in the movie] in their fish tank," recalls Andrew Rhyne, a marine biologist at Roger Williams University in Bristol, R.I.. No one thought to measure the change in the number of wild-caught fish, Rhyne says. But clown fish sales at the world's largest fish hatchery—Ocean, Reefs & Aquariums in Fort Pierce, Fla.—jumped 40 percent.
Retailers are preparing for another sales spike this fall, when Finding Nemo 3-D will be released.
Luckily, clown fish are among the few tropical fish that breed in captivity. Like most demersal fish—those that spawn on hard surfaces—parents stick around to care for their young. Demersal larvae also emerge as fully formed miniature fish, making them relatively self-sufficient. Hobbyists have been breeding clown fish by trial and error for decades. These days, Hansen says, clown fish account for about 80 percent of all tropical fish sales.
Yet almost all of the other 1,500 or more species of tropical fish sold in stores are caught live in the ocean. That is because farmers have had much more limited success in breeding pelagic fish, which account for 90 percent of all tropical species. Pelagic fish spawn and then abandon their young. Larvae lack mouths, eyes and guts and are so fragile that colliding with an air bubble could kill them.
A key challenge has been figuring out what to feed young saltwater fish. Unlike freshwater tank fish, which readily devour processed flake food, tropical fish prefer to eat their meal while it is still flapping. Luckily, breeders found that many demersal fish eat freshwater rotifers—microscopic animals that clone themselves every 24 hours and require little space. The demersal fish fare even better when the rotifers are soaked in nutrient-rich fats and proteins found in the sea.