A freediving fisher from the Indonesian island of Sulawesi attempts to flush a blue tang away from the coral and into his net to sell to an aquarium fish trader. Photo by Shannon Switzer Swanson

Can the global marine aquarium trade be a model for sustainable coral reef fisheries?


Globally, 6 million coral reef fishers provide ~25% of emergent countries’ catch, but species have low value. The marine aquarium trade (MAT) targets high-value biodiversity, but missing data amplify draconian governance and demand for international prohibition. To stimulate sustainability and reef conservation investment, we generate a fiscal baseline using the first global analysis of numbers, diversity, and biomass of MAT-traded organisms. Each year, ~55 million organisms worth US$2.15 billion at retail are traded comparable with major fisheries, e.g., tuna. A sustainable MAT also requires overexploitation assessments. We identify 25 species/genera with “Extremely High” risk ratios and place the Indonesian and Sulu-Celebes Seas in the highest exploitation category. Despite predicted hobbyist number increases, unabated reef degradation and low governance will transform the MAT into an aquaculture-dominated industry decoupled from communities (i.e., culture located in importing countries). A “MAT-positive” future requires evidence-based management/governance, consumer education, and sustainable practice incentivization but can address the biodiversity and social and economic inequality crises.


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Fishing is the primary driver of diminished coral reef functions (1, 2), compromising ecosystem services for millions of people. With an estimated 6 million coral reef fishers globally (3), reefs provide ~25% of the total fish catch in emergent nations (4), but as the target organisms are usually low value (5), the financial leverage of blue food fisheries to support reef conservation and enhance community livelihoods is limited. In contrast, the marine aquarium trade (MAT) targets biodiversity that can retail for hundreds of U.S. dollars per organism (6). The MAT depends on small-scale fisheries from numerous countries generating convoluted global chains of custody (7), but is a data-poor exemplar (6, 811). While a substantial economic value could promote conservation and support sustainable coastal livelihoods, the outdated, myopic MAT estimates (12) that still circulate (13) have contributed to a narrative of overexploitation, leading to draconian governance (14) and international prohibition. Our primary objective is to generate the first global analysis of numbers, diversity, and biomass of MAT-traded organisms and then to calculate point-of-first-sale (PoFS) and retail values. However, as it is critical to include all organisms collected, we also incorporate those rejected/dying within the chain of custody. Because of publicly unavailable commercial data, our approach was to survey retailers to generate average monthly sales combined with retailer numbers from dominant importing developed countries. To generate global estimates, countries with a high human development index (HDI) score (15) were selected as “equivalent” for scaleup. Together, and compared to other global fisheries, these data generate a fiscal baseline to stimulate sustainability investment and governance, which may lead to stronger community-reef connections, i.e., benefits flow to the reef-dependent communities.

Although relative vulnerability for a minority of MAT fish species has been estimated using productivity susceptibility analysis (16), a species’ vulnerability score does not reliably predict overexploitation risk (17). To obviate these issues and to include data-absent fish and all invertebrates, we used extent of species occurrence as a population size proxy. We correlate numbers traded with geographic range, generating risk ratios to inform stock assessments. Critically, as the MAT targets biodiversity from areas within multiple countries’ (6) jurisdictions, we then generate the first exploitation levels for source large marine ecosystems (LMEs)/ecoregions to inform governance.

Just as aquaculture has been suggested to mitigate the global capture fisheries decline (18), expanding the cultured organism supply has been postulated to be the MAT’s future (19). However, ex situ culture, and concomitant capture fisheries disinvestment, may have substantial consequences for MAT-reliant coastal communities and severely limit reef protection support. We calculate future “technology transfer” projections (applying similar aquaculture techniques to closely related species to bring to market). We then generate the first global hobbyist number estimates incorporating key time point predictions in the context of increasing demand due to country-specific population increases and economic growth. These are combined with reef health estimates under future climate scenarios to distill (i) a high-emission “business-as-usual” scenario and (ii) an alternate strong mitigation “MAT-positive” future. Their juxtaposition provides the industry, fisheries/conservation practitioners, and policy makers with a “road map” for governance, maximizing sustainable capture fisheries and aquaculture and preventing decoupling of the MAT, coastal communities, and reefs they both depend on.


Global numbers, biomass, and value

Survey responses generated mean annual retailer sales of 143 ± 127 SD fish and 378 ± 422 SD invertebrates, confirming that approximately 2.6× more invertebrates are sold as fish. Invertebrates dominate the top five groups sold [snails and slugs, large polyp stony (LPS) corals, hermit crabs, shrimps], with only damselfish (3rd) and gobies (10th) in the top 10 (table S3). As the top 30 species represent 43% of the global numbers traded, our data (table S3) also confirm the MAT is dominated by relatively few species, with our list reinforcing the invertebrate dominance with just three fish in the top 30. Using the global scale-up approach, we estimate that there are 8792 MAT retailers in the 66 developed countries (HDI ≥ 0.8). Combining with mean sales data, we estimate global MAT annual sales of 5.54 × 107 organisms; however, including cumulative chain-of-custody losses (a 1.86 collection to retailer factor) generates a traded number of 1.03 × 108 (Fig. 1). This is only ~50% fewer than the number of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares) captured globally, but >7× albacore (Thunnus alalonga) tuna numbers.

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