As Disney/Pixar's Finding Dory hits theaters today, the conversation around ocean wildlife, aquariums, and the collection of fish for the aquarium hobby is growing increasingly loud. Anti-aquarium voices are loudly decrying that the movie will create a mass rush of people running to their local fish store to buy their very own Dory, arguing that this skyrocketing demand will spell the end of wild tang populations and that ornamental fisheries need to be shut down to protect the reefs. Industry and hobbyist sources such as The Pet Leadership Council, MASNA, OATA, and others are releasing messages encouraging hobbyists and would-be fish keepers to do their due diligence and only buy fish that they can responsibly care for.
At Segrest Farms, we don't anticipate a significant increase in demand for the blue tang (also known as regal tangs, hippo tangs, and pallete surgeonfish). Blue Tangs are large and expensive fish with significant care requirements. Setting up a saltwater tank can be a complicated and expensive task that many wannabe new keepers won't be willing to invest in. Clownfish, which are smaller, cheaper, and easier to care for, are also unlikely to see a significant bump in demand due to the time and expense involved in keeping them. Even if there is an increase in clownfish sales, the vast majority of clownfish available are captive bred, and it is likely that any additional demand would be easily met by these same suppliers with little or no impact on wild populations.
So you want a Dory
But what if you are wanting to have your own blue tang? Should you go out to your local fish store to buy one? Should you go find your own Dory? That depends on you as an aquarium hobbyist.
If you've never owned a fish before and are thinking about a blue tang, I'm going to right off the bat say no, you should not buy that fish. They grow to a foot or more in length, need several hundred gallons of open swimming space, and are fairly sensitive and delicate fish, even compared to other marine species. Setting up a new saltwater aquarium takes weeks or months to get to the point that it is ready to put fish in.
What if you are an experienced hobbyist, though? The answer there is a bit harder to give. There are certainly a number of hobbyists able to give the appropriate care to blue tangs to allow them to live happy and healthy lives. For other hobbyists, the same concerns listed for beginners still apply, and only you can determine if you are able to meet the requirements of a blue tang. You need to take the time to carefully consider your situation and be willing to admit that maybe you should say no to that fish.
Should all fish collecting be banned?
There are very legitimate arguments to be made in regards to needing to develop methods of protecting wild populations. However, the argument that all fish collecting should be banned misses some significant factors that ultimately would do more harm than good.
For most people, emotional connections with wildlife and nature are only developed through experiences. Going to the zoo or the public aquarium and owning a home aquarium are among the most effective and accessible ways of having these experiences. Many of the most passionate voices for conservation come from hobbyists who learn about and care for species and habitats as a result of their involvement with the hobby. In reality, most people would probably never have heard of a clownfish or a blue tang if it hadn't been for Finding Nemo, and the movie itself probably would never have been made if it wasn't for the creators seeing the fish in captivity.
Another factor that comes into play is the benefit that ornamental fisheries can have for the conservation of the habitats being fished. We have many times expressed our support for Project Piaba and the positive effects it has on the Rio Negro. Recently, OATA released a report examining the effects of ornamental fisheries have. The reality that those who want to shut down aquarium fisheries ignore is that without the income from fishing, many of those people will be forced to turn to logging, mining, or other industries that devastate the local environment.
So what should you do?
Go enjoy the movie. Go to your local fish store or aquarium Have some experiences that will strengthen your own connection with nature. And then look at ways that you can use the hobby to help promote conservation. Ask your local fish store to bring in fish from Project Piaba. Support Rising Tide and the amazing work they are doing supporting research into learning how to breed more species of marine fish (such as the recent successes with the yellow tang). And work towards educating yourself and others on how to be the best aquarist you can be.