Each fish that arrives in an aquarium has a backstory—but learning what that is can be difficult thanks to unregulated and complex supply chains. However, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Aquatic Collections Sustainability Committee (ACSC) is taking on the task of helping further a sustainable, traceable supply chain for aquatic collections.
In a recent ACSC survey of 130 AZA-accredited facilities, 101 respondents (76.5 percent) said they have aquatic animals within their care.
Often times, it’s up to suppliers or local governments to operate ethically and enforce policies—which can make it difficult for facilities at the receiving end of the supply chain to feel confident that they’re making sustainable choices. The ACSC and its partners are addressing several issues simultaneously that will help improve aquarium fish sustainability throughout the entire acquisition process.
The biggest void currently is data. ACSC working groups are building a database of collections that will help inform the community what zoos and aquariums have and what they might need in the future. Organizations like REEF, Fin Print, and the Coral Reef Aquarium Fisheries Campaign (CRAFC) are researching fish populations in the wild to determine how fishing affects them. At the same time, experts are gathering data on collections, shipping numbers, and mortality rates.
“The first step is to really understand the current acquisition model and its procedures,” said George Parsons, the chair of the ACSC Ethical Acquisitions Working Group and the senior curator of fishes at John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill. “What does our collection footprint look like? What are the current trends, procedures, and successes we have encountered regarding sustainability over the last five years? How can we amplify these across the AZA community?”
The ACSC is currently developing best practices for sourcing fish and aquatic animals sustainably, ethically, and responsibly. For the purposes of aquatic collections, sustainable is defined as meeting the needs of today as well as future needs; renewable and not harmful; and adaptive and responsive to changes in the environment. Ethical decisions avoid adverse impacts to habitats, organisms, and local communities, and ensure exceptional care throughout the animal’s life. Responsible choices are in compliance with laws and treaties, culturally sensitive, and in line with expert advice. Ultimately, ACSC aims to create a set of tools facilities can use to assess the sustainability of their collections.
While improving each point of contact in the supply chain is important, shortening the supply chain would help keep everyone accountable. Longer distances and checkpoints in a fish’s journey from the ocean to its new home create environmental extremes that can result in high (often untracked) mortality rates. Accountability is easier to implement throughout a shorter supply chain with fewer actors.
Inside a source country (the fish’s country of origin), a typical marine aquarium supply chain consists of a fisher, the primary buyer, a consolidator, and the exporter. Once a fish arrives in its destination country, there are at least another four links: an importer, a wholesaler, a retailer, then the final home. Public aquariums are unique in that they can collect their fish directly or source from multiple spots in the supply chain.
“Shortening the chain is a good thing, but it’s not the only solution. Fine tuning best practices is another way to go about improving the situation,” said Parsons. Many collectors are making fairly easy on-the-ground changes, like upgrading equipment and conducting educational programs.
The sociological component of acquiring fish is critical. If local communities aren’t engaged in the process in a meaningful way, sustainability initiatives and the health of reefs won’t improve. Overfishing can lead to habitat degradation and economic instability, which can result in illegal and irresponsible practices. A large percentage of wild aquarium species are not threatened by fishing pressure alone, but rather by other issues that come with a lack of transparency. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam supply roughly 80 percent of ornamental fish—and covert cyanide fishing can be prevalent.
“In general, traders in buying countries have not considered efforts on reef conservation program or changes in fishers’ practices,” said Gayatri Reksodihardjo-Lilley, founder of Yayasan Alam Indonesia Lestari (LINI), an organization in Indonesia that works with the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership. “In our experience in Indonesia, traders react to prohibition, restriction, and regulation, and not to social and ecological aspects.”
There are some key differences in aquarium fishing and food fishing, which could benefit the aquarium community. While food fishers use boats or canoes, aquarium fishers need to snorkel or dive. Both are dangerous at the small-scale level, due to lack of safety equipment. However, food fish are priced by the pound, whereas aquarium fish are priced individually. Currently, one kilogram of food fish is valued at $9, while one kilogram of aquarium fish is $749. According to the recent ACSC survey, 88 percent of zoos and aquariums said they’re willing to pay premium prices for ethically sourced animals. Tying sustainability to financial incentives at the first and second links of the supply chain could improve the quality of life for both fishers and fish.
“When fish are sold, profits accrue to stakeholders in the middle of the chain (retailers, wholesalers, importers, exporters, and other traders) leaving little left for the fishers,” said Paul Anderson, co-founder of the CRAFC and scientist-in-residence at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. A core strategy of the CRAFC is to “upgrade the value chain” by changing the way marine aquarium fishes are traded globally. In some countries, fishers earn pennies per fish, which incentivizes them to catch as many fish as possible instead of encouraging them to provide high-quality care for a select few.
Implementing a value-driven (not volume-driven) approach that incentivizes every step of the supply chain could help ensure healthy, high-quality fish by teaching best practices in fish husbandry and business management, developing tests for cyanide, and rejecting cyanide-exposed fish. CRAFC suggests identifying new markets to command premium prices for responsibly sourced fish, which would result in fishers receiving more income, which would encourage the growth of sustainably managed fisheries.
Mystic Aquarium, Roger Williams University, UMass Boston, and CRAFC are studying the effects of cyanide exposure in marine aquarium fish at the gene and enzyme level. The goal is to create a field test that will detect cyanide-exposed fish and completely remove them from the market, which would eventually eliminate cyanide fishing.
“The supply chain could be shortened through the development of direct market links to fishers through alternative marketing strategies like procedures, mechanisms, and systems that allow fishers to influence the terms of their sales,” said Robert Pomeroy, reef fisheries economist with the CRAFC. “But, alternative marketing strategies might mean more work for the fisher because they would have to develop improved business skills, work with other fishers, and manage the finances and paperwork.”
Aquariums helped create Seafood Watch. Now, looking at sustainable food fishing models could greatly benefit the aquarium trade. In 2020, the Southeast Asian Fisheries Development Center completed a five-year project that developed electronic catch documentation and traceability (eCDT) for marine capture fisheries using mobile data collection devices, remote sensing technology, satellite communications, and various automation systems like bar coding and RFID tags. These systems are in place selectively in other parts of the world, as well. This system standardizes key data elements at points in the supply chain that traces a fish as it moves. The new process introduced the ability to tag a fish electronically with GPS coordinates that record who caught it and where. Previously, all records had been on paper. The next step is figuring out how to apply this technology to all fisheries (including those that source aquarium fish and pets) and how to continue documentation once fish leave the country.
“Most people involved understand that the health of the ecosystems they rely on are important not only for themselves and their livelihood but the planet as a whole. The work the ACSC is doing to provide tools that can determine when and where to obtain sustainable, wild caught, healthy animals will strengthen the permanence of these livelihoods,” said Parsons.
In the meantime, the best bet for AZA-accredited facilities that want to acquire new fish or invertebrate collections sustainably is to take advantage of the network’s shared knowledge and trusted vendors. Many aquariums have diverse, long-term collections they have sourced over time—and with that comes valuable first-hand experience and their own sustainable discoveries.