Our Hobby is Under Attack

pijac1-1We are under attack; our hobby is under attack. We’re currently facing legislation that could put an end to our hobby as we know it. And no, I’m not sensationalizing the situation. Please don’t make the mistake of thinking you and your home aquarium(s) wouldn’t be affected, because they absolutely could. We first heard about the potential issues at MACNA 2013, and this past MACNA further solidified the urgency of action to protect our hobby.

The current issues date back to a 2009 petition by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to move 83 reef-building coral species under the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Just last month, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) listed 20 of those species (5 Caribbean, 15 Indo-Pacific) as threatened. This happened after scientific information submitted by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC)—they’re on our side—proved that many of the 83 species did not warrant protection under the ESA.

According to PIJAC, the NMFS will likely apply ESA’s “take” prohibitions to the newly listed coral species sooner rather than later. If applied, these prohibitions could severely restrict or even eliminate the trade of these species. That could apply to wild-collected and aquacultured corals alike. As you can imagine, this would have a devastating effect on the marine aquarium hobby and industry.

Below is an excerpt from a recent letter PIJAC wrote to Marine Aquarium Societies of North America (MASNA) outlining the situation in more detail. Pay particular attention to the bolded portion.

Following a 2009 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) to list 83 reef-building coral species for protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA), on August 28, 2014, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) listed 20 species of corals as threatened species. The final listing includes 5 coral species from the Caribbean and 15 Indo-Pacific coral species from the genera Acropora, Euphyllia, Montipora, Pavona, Porites, and Seriatopora.

NMFS had originally proposed to list 66 reef-building species as threatened and endangered in December, 2012. However, based upon substantial scientific information submitted by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) and other parties, NMFS determined only 20 of these species warranted listing as threatened species. Such scientific information included the submission of a scientific report developed by Dr. Charlie Veron, a world-renowned coral expert. PIJAC participated in the development of Dr. Veron’s work and provided financial support enabling completion of this work.

In its final listing determination, NMFS elected not to apply the general ESA Section 9 “take” prohibitions to the newly listed species. The term “take” is broadly defined to include a range of actions, including harassing, harming, injuring, or killing a listed species. Instead, NMFS solicited comments regarding the appropriate scope of ESA Section 9 regulations and indicated that it will consult with federal agencies and other partners to develop appropriate recovery strategies for the species.

PIJAC believes it likely that NMFS will apply the ESA Section 9 “take” prohibitions to the newly listed coral species in the near future, consistent with prior agency actions. Application of these take prohibitions by NMFS could severely restrict or eliminate trade in these species. Such prohibitions may apply to both corals in the wild as well as farm-raised corals. Such actions would be devastating to the marine aquarium hobby. Aquarium conferences, retail stores, wholesale suppliers, and coral farms would see an immediate direct impact, while manufacturers, dry-goods suppliers, and mail-order pet suppliers would experience the resulting loss of business too.

While we await further regulatory actions, anti-aquarium organizations will surely strive to create a social stigma for the aquarium industry by claiming, for example, that we are “trafficking in threatened and endangered species.” The emotion surrounding the subject will likely inflame public opinion and could motivate NMFS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to enact stricter importation rules on all corals.

NMFS’ action to list these species was driven by a petition filed by CBD. CBD indicated in its petition that climate change presents a significant risk for these species, requiring listing of these species under the ESA. CBD, effectively, is attempting to use the ESA as a tool to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. NMFS, likewise, relied on the effects of climate change to justify listing these 20 species. However, scientific information developed by world-renowned scientists indicate that none of the 20 listed coral species warrant listing under the ESA. These experts have stated in recent comments that NMFS’ final rule is not supported by the best available scientific information.

The Solution
PIJAC acted quickly to provide the best available scientific information to NMFS in response to CBD’s petition to list corals. PIJAC’s efforts are largely responsible for the dramatic reduction in the number of species listed and the fact that none of these species were listed as endangered. But that is not enough. PIJAC must continue to work with the scientific community to develop and submit scientific information regarding marine species. PIJAC must also remain engaged in the legal and policy issues arising now that these 20 coral species have been listed by NMFS under the ESA.

This is a time-consuming and expensive process, and it requires your support. All funds donated to PIJAC’s Aquatic Defense Fund will be directed toward either this specific process or other existing anti-aquarium campaigns.

Many eminent coral reef scientists are dismayed by the listing. ESA take prohibitions may be at odds with the best plan for the recovery of any coral species that might ever need a recovery plan—coral farming and restoration. ESA prohibitions may dramatically limit or eliminate conservation and education programs.

The recent ESA listed coral species include:

From the Atlantic

  • Mycetophyllia ferox
  • Dendrogyra cylindrus
  • Orbicella annularis
  • Orbicella faveolata
  • Orbicella franksi

From the Pacific

  • Acropora globiceps
  • Acropora jacquelineae
  • Acropora lokani
  • Acropora pharaonis
  • Acropora retusa
  • Acropora rudis
  • Acropora speciosa
  • Acropora tenella
  • Anacropora spinosa
  • Euphyllia paradivisa
  • Isopora crateriformis
  • Montipora australiensis
  • Pavona diffluens
  • Porites napopora
  • Seriatopora aculeata

Add to this recent news that the NMFS is currently considering adding the True Percula Clownfish (Amphiprion percula) and seven other damselfishes to the ESA after receiving a petition from none other than the CBD. It’s becoming clear we’re up against a legislative onslaught and this is only the beginning.

What can you do?

  1. Donate to PIJAC’s Aquatic Defense Fund—they are fighting for us and need funds to support the ongoing process. (Saltwater Smarts has done so, and we encourage you to do so, as well.) MASNA is also soliciting donations to support PIJAC’s efforts to fight this current proposal and will match 100% of all donations received through their PIJAC donation link up to $5,000.
  2. Share this post and other relevant information with fellow hobbyists, reef clubs, and local fish stores.
  3. Follow PIJAC to keep up on the latest (website, Facebook, Twitter).

We’ll be sharing more info soon about PIJAC’s mission and what the Aquatic Defense Fund has done and will be doing to safeguard our hobby. Stay tuned, and most importantly, take action now!

Photo credit: Graeme Churchard

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About "Caribbean Chris" Aldrich

"Caribbean Chris" Aldrich is co-founder and Director of Saltwater Smarts, an avid SCUBA diver, and contributor to a live rock mariculture project in the Florida Keys. He has been an aquarium hobbyist for 20 years and his current aquarium is a 127-gallon Carib reef biotope.

Comments

  1. This should be taken very seriously! It pertains to every hobbyist! Please dig into your wallets and give to fight this invasion of our hobby. If everyone gives what they can, with PIJAC leading the charge we can be successful.

    Thank you Chris for this write-up bring attention to this calamity.

    I gave at MACNA in Denver.

    Dick Hilgers

    • Chris Aldrich says:

      Absolutely. This could affect everyone from the home aquarist all the way up to the big companies in the industry. Thanks for your support, Dick. Please feel free to share this amongst your circles to help spread the word.

  2. So an environmental watchdog wants to establish regulatory restrictions to protect marine life – what’s wrong with that? I’m a saltwater aquarist myself, but I support this movement. The truth is, our hobby is a selfish one; we want to bring a piece of the ocean to our living room at the expense of others and the long-term sustainability of the ocean. I try my best to buy aqua-cultured fish, corals, and rocks, but even then, the fact remains that the majority of inhabitants in our tank come from the ocean. It’s easy to hide behind the veil of “they are taking away our hobby”, but the truth is us hobbyist is slowly destroying the beautiful ocean, bit by bit.

    • Chris Aldrich says:

      Hi Chris – Thanks for stopping by and voicing your opinion. I always willing to chat with anyone who is interested in this important topic.

      The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is a great conservation tool, however that’s not what this legislation is about at all. IF it was actually grounded in coral reef conservation, I would be behind it 100%. I think any other environmentally aware aquarist would, as well. Two Caribbean coral species were listed prior to the recent 20. Those two were A. palmata (elkhorn) and A. cervicornis (staghorn), which need all the help they can get and belong on the ESA. Anyone who has been diving in the Keys and Caribbean will attest to that.

      The majority of the recently listed corals are downright common not only in the hobby, but in the wild. The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) submitted their petitions without any scientific backing and NOAA is obligated by law to look into anything submitted. PIJAC (Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council) submitted science-backed information from leading coral researchers and scientists around the world refuting the addition of these species to the ESA. You’d think it would end there but unfortunately NOAA, at their own admittance, disregarded much of the lack of actual data and moved forward with listings. It was only through PIJAC’s efforts over recent years that the number went from the 83 originally proposed to the 20 actually added.

      You see, it’s not about saving these species (that don’t even need to be saved) at all, it’s just a shell game. The CBD is an organization of 70+ young environmentalist lawyers who want to continue collecting their government-funded paychecks. Unfortunately the marine aquarium industry is just one of the targets for their billable hours. Ultimately they’re using these petitions as a roundabout way of getting to their greater cause (reducing carbon emissions, offset ocean acidification, and try to stop global warming). They see little movement when attacking it head on so now they’re using these ESA listings as a “back door” way of going about it. It’s unfortunate, but that’s why we’re here.

      The most alarming part of all of this is it would affect both WILD and AQUACULTURED corals. If National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) applies “take” prohibitions to the recently listed coral species, which PIJAC believes is very likely based on their previous actions, it will greatly restrict or even eliminate the legality of trading or even possessing these species within our hobby. You can imagine the ramifications that would have on the hobby – all the way from home aquarists to the manufacturers.

      And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure the CBD is looking at these 20 listings and a step in progression toward the rest named in their original petition. Plus, now they’re also petitioning to have fish (such as the Percula Clownfish and 7 other damselfish) added to the ESA. That’s completely absurd, to say the least.

      If you believe this means anyone who opposes this legislation is hiding behind a veil, then that is absolutely your right and opinion. But first, please chew on this. By and large, our hobby is beneficial to natural reefs around the world. Yes, of course, there is the occasional black cloud (just as in any walk of life), but our hobby has made leaps and bounds in not only sustainability but coral reef conservation over the last 20 years. Just as regulated and sustainable hunting practices help keep wild populations of terrestrial species in check, the majority of collectors world wide are doing the same for the aquatic world (when done right, these operations benefit the natural environment). Let us not forget mariculture efforts where “plant one/sell one” efforts are stimulating entire communities (and their coral reefs) in third world countries that up until recently cared little for the world beneath the waves. Efforts such as the Coral Restoration Foundation are farming the previously mentioned elkhorn and staghorn corals and outplanting them on natural reefs to help them rebound. I myself work on a mariculture project in the Florida Keys where we plant terrestrial rock in our offshore farm to create live rock which is then sold back into the hobby (and lessens the demand for natural live rock from other parts of the world). These are just a few examples, the positive impact of our hobby on coral reefs around the world is abound.

      I won’t refute your observation that coral reefs worldwide are currently on the decline (due to a variety of factors: namely mass bleaching events, urban runoff, and warming waters), but to say the marine aquarium hobby is a major aspect would, quite frankly, be something right out of Snorkel Bob’s playbook. We’re an easy target because we’re smaller, less organized (until recently), and not as equipped to defend ourselves. Remember, it’s all a big political game, we are just the pawns.

      I hope this explains the situation at hand a bit better. Let me know if you have any questions. If I can’t answer them, I’ll pass them along to someone who can and get back to you.

      • You seem to be stating a whole lot of stuff as fact that we simply can’t support with data. “By and large, our hobby is beneficial to natural reefs around the world.” “Just as regulated and sustainable hunting practices help keep wild populations of terrestrial species in check, the majority of collectors world wide are doing the same for the aquatic world (when done right, these operations benefit the natural environment).” The CRF is not a hobby/industry organization. If you are going to claim that the current and proposed listings are being put forward without data (which is true), then it seems unfair to try to defend against those listing using unsupported anecdote.
        The data is important, and we don’t have much for the hobby/industry and that is a problem. Arguing against the current and upcoming listings is a good thing, but it needs to be done with data, not anecdote and hyperbole. If the data shows that some corals need protection, will you be wiling to support those listings?

        • Chris Aldrich says:

          Howdy Rich – Nice to see you stop by and jump in on the conversation! You are absolutely correct that the data to support most of what we feel to be true is lacking. I do wish we, as a hobby and industry, were more prepared to defend ourselves at this juncture.

          While the CRF is not directly a hobby/industry organization, as I’m sure you’re aware, Ken comes from the industry and is still connected, albeit abstractly, through the sustainable reef life collection business he handed down to Kara and Philip.

          The live rock mariculture operation I’ve worked with for years down in the Keys has absolutely had a positive impact on the natural environment. By nature of regulations for leasing the site from the federal government, it was started in a nearly desolate sand flat that’s offset from any natural reefs. Since 1995 the site has developed into quite the “artificial” reef. We actually worked with REEF on a species study years back. Prior to the farm there was less than 10 species that called the area home, now it’s home to 70+ species. Plus we get large pelagics passing through, as well. But, I digress.

          Are you aware of any data or studies that have been done for coral mariculture projects around the world? The economic impact on the small third world communities supporting these projects seems obvious, but have studies been done to support their benefit to natural reefs? That seems like something Walt Smith, Vincent Chalias, and others would be quite interested in knowing with certainty…not to mention the rest of us hobbyists at large.

          I truly care for natural reefs, that’s why I got into this hobby. While I enjoy having a slice of the ocean in my home, the part that really does it for me is being able to share it with others who aren’t divers and are unable to experience it in the wild. The joy and wonderment on people’s faces that have looked at my tanks over the years is priceless. Most of them aren’t even aquarists, so they have no idea what they are looking at, but they know it’s something special.

          I support listing any species that can be proved to be in need of protection. A. palmata and A. cervicornis are great examples. Those species belong on the ESA and deserve all the protection they can get. Diving in the Keys and Caribbean these days is often times depressing, and listening to stories from folks who were diving back in the 60-70s only adds to it.

          One of my biggest qualms with the report is NOAA/NMFS says it’s “difficult to quantify or qualify distribution and abundance of individual coral species.” If that’s the case, how can they possibly suggest which ones are in need of protection? At that point, wouldn’t coral researchers and scientists around the world be the source of “best available information”, as they often put it? PIJAC enlisted Veron’s expertise in the information they submitted to NMFS, and from what I understand he refuted the listings. Do you understand that to be true, as well?

          All that said; even if it meant the detriment (or even demise) of this hobby, I would fully support listing any and all species that are shown to truly need ESA protection.

          • “Are you aware of any data or studies that have been done for coral mariculture projects around the world? The economic impact on the small third world communities supporting these projects seems obvious, but have studies been done to support their benefit to natural reefs?”
            I am aware of none. The industry is not known for doing its own studies. Without the studies, I am even wary of saying the economic impact of such projects is anything as the data often refute what people think is obvious. After all, the economic impact of dredging a reef and building a pier is also ‘obvious’.

            “While the CRF is not directly a hobby/industry organization, as I’m sure you’re aware, Ken comes from the industry” But CRF is not. Saying that Ken came from the hobby and therefore CRF is somehow a hobby/industry or is like saying the Steinhart aquarium is a juggling institution because I used to be a juggler. Cuttently the CRF can only take support from the hobby, and I think we should give them a ton, and the CRF is a prime example of why hobby expemtions to the ESA might be a good idea…he has a ton of coral, and small pieces could be auctioned off for fundraising and PR. We are a great candidate for ESA exemptions. .

            “I truly care for natural reefs, that’s why I got into this hobby. While I enjoy having a slice of the ocean in my home, the part that really does it for me is being able to share it with others who aren’t divers and are unable to experience it in the wild. The joy and wonderment on people’s faces that have looked at my tanks over the years is priceless. Most of them aren’t even aquarists, so they have no idea what they are looking at, but they know it’s something special.” I have written about these topics in the past and think the sharing it with others is not a robust justification for the hobby: http://packedhead.net/2011/justifications-my-home-tank-is-educational/
            Further, it seems that most of the hobby is not at all as into it as you or I are. See Skeptical Reefkeeping 11 for that discussion.
            “One of my biggest qualms with the report is NOAA/NMFS says it’s “difficult to quantify or qualify distribution and abundance of individual coral species.” If that’s the case, how can they possibly suggest which ones are in need of protection? At that point, wouldn’t coral researchers and scientists around the world be the source of “best available information”, as they often put it? PIJAC enlisted Veron’s expertise in the information they submitted to NMFS, and from what I understand he refuted the listings. Do you understand that to be true, as well?”
            Exactly why we need more of the data. I haven’t seen the data but do hope it supports these claims.

            “All that said; even if it meant the detriment (or even demise) of this hobby, I would fully support listing any and all species that are shown to truly need ESA protection.”
            Right on. 😀

  3. Tim Birthisel says:

    The history of the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is worth noting briefly, because it sheds light on the big picture. Originally passed in 1973, and places the burden of proof on the listing proponent organization, nominally the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), to validate the necessity for protection.
    In 1978, the addition by Congress of “economic considerations” without a defined economic yardstick resulted in the essential gutting of the act, with about 2000 pending listings being withdrawn shortly thereafter, and little new ESA activity in the decades following.
    Meanwhile, with surprisingly scarce funding available, biologists in the field have watched and documented the collapse of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems as an ongoing part of our current global extinction event, occurring on widespread global and abrupt temporal scales like the planetary freezes and giant meteor impacts of Earth’s past. The difference here is that the extinctions have been directly caused by our species. Ecologists have long recognized that a hallmark of a given species success rate is whether or not it finds itself at war with the human race, and it’s obvious which is “winning.”
    It has been difficult for the public to perceive the collapse, sort of like watching a train wreck in ultra slow-motion, with a frame of the movie occurring perhaps once a year or so. The biologists call the effect the “shifting baseline,” wherein even specialists in the field have a hard time perceiving the change because they only have so many years of working observation from which to draw a personal perspective. During my diving years in the Keys I have watched large living mogul fields of the Orbicellae (formerly Montastreae, or ‘Mountainous Star’) and the forests of Acroporae (Elkhorn and Staghorn) give way from being the dominant features on most dive sites to lonely outposts of life struggling among fossil reefs and rubble fields. Most of the young divers I work today with think the sites are beautiful, but I can’t help but mourn for what was, and the older researchers I have had the privilege of working with in the past have told me that I missed the really spectacular reefs of the 40’s and 50’s, when most of the photos in the tourist brochures were taken.
    In the years leading up to 2000, with the cultural ‘End of the Century/Millenium Effect’ begging leaders in the international community to take a long view, the UN formed the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) as a fresh attempt to tackle the problem. This resulted in a treaty ratified by the member nations and the filing of lawsuits against FWS, forcing it to again resume ESA listings, hence the current dilemma for our aquarium hobby. I am not surprised at errors made by the regulators, some of which may limit or prohibit my own business in the near future. The ecology departments at most US Universities seem to be going the way of the corals due to lack of funding.
    Our own live rock and coral mariculture project in the Keys is a demonstration of a commercial wildlife sanctuary, wherein we have dramatically increased habitat for fish and invertebrates, the local diversity of which have increased as a result of our practices. We don’t collect the fish, but rather provide free “room and board” for roughly 100 fish species, and we grow the amount of habitat each year by planting more substrate than we harvest. When I am asked about how many employees we have, I answer, “Tens of thousands, but they aren’t human.” The biodiversity is what provides for quality growth, it takes an ecosystem to grow a coral in nature.
    Sure, it would be a crying shame to limit or prohibit this sort of a business. We should be doing a lot more of it, rather than supporting the extractive practices of wild harvesting. It’s more expensive in the money sense to do things this way but, seeing what I have seen, and taking my only soul into account, I’d rather eke out a living this way than make a killing in this business.
    By the same token, I would urge everyone in the hobby to look beyond what they pay for a given creature to how it is produced, and perhaps even to collectively fund some of the research needed to help make better decisions. It would be a shame to be just another US industry whose main response to the environmentalist challenge is “lawyering up,” however expedient that is. Our hobby and industry can do better, and we need to if WE want to avoid extinction.

    Tim Birthisel, Terra Sub Aqua

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