I occasionally write content and polls for Coral Magazine's web portal, and couldn't help but notice the results of a poll the magazine took of the survival rates of fish in the care of it's readers. One can see instantly from the responses that the sample size is atypical of our hobby, as are the results. Additionally, assuming the results are accurate protrayals of reader's success rates (and they probably are, more or less) one can see how successful aquarists can easily forget, or not even know about the very high mortality rates that are the norm in our hobby.
~79% of readers disagreed with the mortality rate stated by Robert Witner. However, is this because it's not true, or because the readers who are responding are better informed, more competent, etc. than the "average" aquarist? We'll determine this by using question 3 of the poll "How long have you been keeping marine fishes?". 96.3% have been keeping marine animals longer than three years, and a full 58.7% have been keeping marine fish longer than ten years - a lopsided sample, for sure.
These numbers show us that this is not a random sampling of the marine aquarist 'population', especially seeing as "80-90% of hobbyists quit within a year due to losses mostly attributed to lack of knowledge" [Bob Fenner]! While I applaud the apparent success of Coral Magazine readers, they most definitely do not represent the majority of aquarists, and thus the information gathered is not relavent to the hobby as a whole.
Below is a partial quote of the response I wrote to the poll on Coral Magazine's website:
I believe the average mortality rate to be above 90% in the first year, from my experience in wholesale and other operations. Obviously this is in no way empirical data, but in my 16 years of experience I have consistently been exposed to these high percentages of mortality in collected marine organisms.
In defense of the percentage 'Snorkel Bob' quoted, I believe Bob Fenner has quoted the same mortality percentage, and that 80-90% of those entering the hobby subsequently quit. I think we can all agree he has a vast amount of experience from which to draw, and is well versed in every aspect of the hobby.
From an ethical standpoint, longevity is very relevant. From a biological standpoint, the survival rate of our animals in captivity does not matter. All species collected, whether they live 20 minutes or 20 years in captivity, are still removed from the ecosystem. All species removed (whether collected for the hobby or otherwise) are essentially "dead" in terms of an ecological standpoint. They cannot reproduce, do not have an impact on their own and other wild populations, etc. In this regard, 'Snorkel Bob' makes a point, albeit missing the whole story.
Is collection a bad thing? Absolutely not, as long as it's done in an as low impact a manner as possible, and the animals collected are removed in a sustainable fashion. The tricky part is obtaining accurate fecundity data, collection info, etc. Our hobby is one with very little information transparency once a species has left an import facility, which is a bad thing when attempting to determine what collection practices are sustainable.
Neale Monks wrote an excellent response to Snorkel Bob and our hobby's collection practices, and worded it much better than I would be able to - I recommend reading it, especially to those that do not have a background in biology or similar science.
One must also remember that although experienced aquarists may have success maintaining fish in the long term, how many other animals died during the chain of collection->holding->transportation-> wholesale operations->transportation->LFS? In my experience in the different parts of this chain, it is a total 2-10 fish deaths for every live fish that enters a hobbyist's aquarium. Luckily, this number is lessening, as large, quality wholesalers have been able to make great headway in collection chain practices, as well as obtain valuable information that helps preserve the lives of the organisms we enjoy so much.
Do I think our hobby is a dark one? I think there are shades of gray. One one hand, anything that informs us or encourages us to become more informed about ecology, biology, conservation, and empathy for living organisms is a good thing, and I have participated in this hobby and worked to inform other hobbyists for as long as I have precisely for this reason. On the other hand, apathy, and the treatment of living animals as though they're merely a collectible commodity (fad corals, "rare" fish/coral/etc) is not only silly, but undermines what positive impact our hobby is capable of.
Feel free to voice your thoughts in the comments section, or check out some of the other opinion pieces below:
- Are local fish stores a disgrace to the hobby?
- Is your local fish store a hidden gold mine?
- Should anemone be illegal to import?
Image credit: Reefs to Rainforest Publications