The Marine Aquarist as Environmental Scapegoat

Coral reefSome years ago, I read a rather unflattering feature article in a local newspaper about the reefkeeping hobby and its impact on the natural reefs. To say this piece was biased, wretchedly researched, and wholly unsupported would be putting it mildly. In a nutshell, the author’s point was that we aquarium hobbyists savage the world’s reefs merely so we can decorate our tanks with pretty corals and fish.

As is so often the case in “journalism” today, confirmation bias was on full display in this article. It was readily apparent that the author began with a conclusion (reefkeepers bad!) and worked his way backward, only bothering to include information that supported his preconceived narrative while omitting counterarguments or anything resembling context. I don’t recall that he even bothered to seek insights from local hobbyists or dealers.

Of course, no mention was made of the role frag sharing plays in the hobby or the fact that one can stock a reef system quite satisfactorily using only captive-propagated corals and fish. The uninformed reader would likely have come away with the notion of our hobby as a zero-sum game—i.e., every coral that appears in a hobbyist’s tank equals one less coral on the beleaguered reefs.

And that’s just one example of the “marine-aquarist-as-environmental-meanie” meme. The same narrative also arises any time a fish or other marine organism appears somewhere outside its natural range. For instance, take the current lionfish invasion of the western Atlantic, Caribbean Sea, and Gulf of Mexico—an ecological disaster of epic proportions, to be sure. I just recently watched a documentary on this phenomenon that was quite interesting but also produced in me a twinge of irritation when the narrator endeavored to explain the source of the invasion.

The first theory he put forth was (naturally) the release of specimens by aquarium hobbyists. A few other possibilities were given brief mention, but despite acknowledging that we don’t know with any degree of certainty how the invasion actually began, the default stance seemed to be release by hobbyists.

Pterois volitans in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Pterois volitans in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida

Now, to be clear, it is entirely possible that the blame for this invasion does lie with irresponsible fellow hobbyists who released specimens that they could no longer manage or no longer held their interest. As I understand it, DNA testing indicates that the invasive population can be traced back to very small number of specimens, so hobbyist release—whether intentional or accidental (e.g., when a private aquarium in South Florida was reportedly destroyed by Hurricane Andrew back in 1992, allowing a small group of lionfish to escape into Biscayne Bay)—would seem to be a very reasonable conclusion.

But surely there’s more than one way for a small number of lionfish to find their way into non-native waters. Isn’t it also possible, for instance, that an unscrupulous dive operator intentionally released some specimens in order to offer his/her clientele a “unique” underwater attraction and get a leg up on the competition (another explanation that’s been floated)? I’m certainly not saying that’s the case (so, fellow divers, please don’t barrage me with hate mail); I’m just trying to point out that there are other, equally feasible explanations. What sticks in my craw is the knee-jerk reaction of “Aquarists must have done it!” to every marine environmental mishap.

Where does this mentality come from? As I see it, there are a few factors that tend to put our hobby in the crosshairs. Among them:

  • We can’t dispute that there are certain environmentally regrettable practices associated with our hobby. For example, the fact that cyanide collection of fish continues in some parts of the world is a major black eye for us all. And if we’re perceived as tolerating or promoting one form of wrongdoing, we’re then automatically suspect and placed in the untenable position of having to “prove a negative” whenever it’s possible that we’ve had a hand in creating another environmental issue.
  • We present an easy target. Though the impact of the marine aquarium hobby on the health of coral reefs is miniscule in comparison to that of agricultural runoff, sewage discharge, sedimentation, rising water temperatures, etc., we’re a much easier problem to fix—lower-hanging fruit, if you will—than these other influences.
  • Few non-hobbyists really understand our hobby and what makes us tick. I suspect a lot of folks out there view us as aquatic trophy hunters who just want something exotic to display in our homes and don’t particularly care how we acquire it. But, in fact, most of us share a profound fascination with the natural world—particularly the world’s oceans—and are deeply concerned about protecting it.

So what are we to make of all this? Well, recognizing that some folks out there are quick to cast a suspicious eye on aquarium hobbyists (whether deservedly not) whenever problems arise in the marine environment, it behooves us to keep our practices beyond reproach. As that “low-hanging fruit,” we have to do our best to avoid creating even the perception that we’re indifferent to the welfare of the marine organisms in our care or the reefs they hail from. Remember, if we don’t make every effort to police ourselves, we risk having others step in to police our hobby for us.


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About Jeff Kurtz

Jeff Kurtz is the Co-founder/Editor of Saltwater Smarts, former Senior Consulting Editor for Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine, and the aquarist formerly known as “The Salt Creep.” He has been an aquarium hobbyist for over 30 years and is an avid scuba diver.


  1. Paul Baldassano says

    Maybe people should release their dogs into the wild. After all, all dogs were at one time wolves and people took them from their habitat for their own pleasure. I think they should all go back to nature. Cats too.
    Most aquarium hobbyists are also environmentalists, I know I am and when I am at my marina I always point to things in the water to teach landlubbers. This week most of the fish are dying from hypoxia. No one knew what that was but it is natural occurance that happens almost every year.
    We know more about the oceans because of hobbyists.
    The sea food industry destroys millions of tons of “trash” fish to collect the few specimens that bring the highest price.
    Thank God we have Supermodels to bring some order to the world.

  2. Matt Bowers (Muttley000) says

    Nice write up Jeff! It’s up to the hobby to change the perception people have. Publicizing frag swaps, promoting captive bred trade. Having the local paper write a general interest arrival about a particular breeding success (my plan when I have a few) are ways we can spread the good word!

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