People Are Killing Millions Of Fish Each Year Just To Stock Aquariums?

It is great to see a beautiful aquarium filled with colourful fish, but unfortunately there is an ugly side to the story. For every one lovely fish you see in a tank, six have died between the reef and the store.

Back in 2010 on the island of Kona, the inhabitants discovered a very grissly find. In a dumpster, they found a bag of dead fish. On laying them out, the total count was 610 made up of yellow tangs, butterflyfish and surgeonfish.

Rene Umberger from ‘For the Fishes’ described the find as ‘extremely alarming’. Her organisation advocates the protection of wild fish. It seems that the fish had been caught and were going to be shipped off to be sold to people who had tropical aquariums. Somewhere along the way, something must have happened to cause the fish to die in such a great number.

Hundreds of dead tropical fish discovered in a dumpster in Hawaii
The plastic bag of dead fish found in Kona. Credit: Teri Leicher
Hundreds of dead tropical fish discovered in a dumpster in Hawaii
610 dead tropical fish found in Kona. Credit: Teri Leicher

“It was likely a mechanical failure [in their holding tanks] that deprived them of oxygen and allowed buildup of deadly waste,” Rene said. “People who capture and trade in this wildlife for a living care very little about the well-being of these animals. The goal is to sell these animals before they die and pass the risk onto the buyer. It really is quite ugly.”

Hundreds of dead tropical fish discovered in a dumpster in Hawaii
Credit: Teri Leicher
Dead tropical fish discovered in a dumpster in Hawaii
Credit: Teri Leicher

Rene says that it is estimated that 20 – 24 million fish are captured each year to be sold for aquariums with the Philippines and Indonesia being the biggest sellers. The mortality rate is sky high with this trade with many fish dying while being transported.

Teresa M. Telecky, senior director of the wildlife department for Humane Society International (HSI) said the whole process is incredibly cruel:

“Many fish are captured at depths that, when they are quickly brought to the surface, causes barotrauma, just like scuba divers would experience if they surfaced too rapidly from deep water,” she said. “Barotrauma causes physical damage to body tissues which can overstretch or rupture. Fish brought up too quickly will have bulging eyes and cloaca.”

Dead tropical fish discovered in a dumpster in Hawaii
Credit: Teri Leicher
Hundreds of dead tropical fish discovered in a dumpster in Hawaii
Credit: Teri Leicher
Tropical fish in Hawaii
Credit: Teri Leicher

Another reason they die so soon after being captured is due to barotrauma, which is when the fish is brought to the surface of the water too quickly. A tell tale sign of this is for the fish to have bulging eyes.

Sometimes people who harvest the fish will pierce the bladder so that it may be caught faster. This is known as ‘fizzing’ and obviously it is going to cause some physical damage to the fish.

Divers catching fish with nets in Hawaii
Divers using nets to catch fish in Hawaii. Credit: Paul Cox
Divers catching fish with nets in Hawaii
Divers using nets to catch fish in Hawaii. Credit: Paul Cox

“Aquarium fish collectors are in a rush to get their fish to market, so instead of taking the time to decompress the fish by slowly bringing them to the surface, they instead skewer the fish with a needle aimed at the fish’s swim bladder, a technique called ‘fizzing,'” she added. “This causes physical damage to the fish’s scales, skin, circulatory system, muscle and the swim bladder, which is an organ.”

Diver using cyanide to catch fish
A diver using cyanide to collect fish. Credit: James Cervino/NOAA

In the Philippines and Indonesia, the harvesters tend to use cyanide to stun the fish so they are easier to catch. Cyanide is mixed in a bottle with salt water and then squirted at the fish. Unfortunately many others die in the process. If the fish does not die from this, then it often dies along the way because of being in small bags with not enough water.

A fish being transported in a plastic bag

“They crush up these [cyanide] tablets inside these squirt bottles,” Umberger said. “Then they mix it with salt water and they squirt it out. Fish that are closest to that are going to die almost immediately. You can see them gasping for air.”

“When cyanide is squirted onto a reef, 50 percent of the reef and animals who are exposed, die,” Rene added. “Within hours, another percentage dies. Within days, another. It’s destroying reefs and entire ecosystems.”

A fish being transported in a plastic bag
A yellow tang being transported in a plastic bag. Credit: Robert Wintner/Snorkel Bob

“Fish are transported to market in small plastic bags that contain very little water that becomes contaminated with fish excrement during the long transport process, which can be several days,” Teresa said. “To avoid too much fish excrement in the water, traders often starve the fish for 24 or 48 hours before shipment, which is very unnatural, especially for fish who graze all day. Fish dorsal spines, which are part of the animal’s skeleton covered by skin, are often cut off so that the plastic bag is not punctured.”

“Most wild-caught marine fish do not survive long in captivity, particularly in average home aquariums, which keeps the demand for new ‘replacement’ aquarium animals high, meaning more damage to wildlife populations,” Teresa added. “It’s a revolving door of cruelty and destruction.”

A dying yellow tang fish in an aquarium
A dying yellow tang lying on the bottom of an aquarium. Credit: For The Fishes

Rene feels that it is important that people know just how the fish are caught, and the appalling way they are transported to the retail store. Fish may be small but they have as much right as anyone else to have a good life.

“What we’ve learned is that people just don’t know that these animals are captured to begin with.”

A dying yellow tang fish in an aquarium
A dying yellow tang lying on the bottom of an aquarium. Credit: For The Fishes

“They may be small and very different from humans but they are among the most beautiful creatures on Earth,” Rene continued. “They deserve our care and protection and fortunately more and more people realize this every day.”

There is a pledge you can sign which shows that you will never buy wild caught fish for your aquarium again, and of course, donations are always welcome.

Source: The Dodo