The WildLife: Marine Aquarium Trade, Interview with Brian Tissot

In July, 2010 I was interviewed by Laurel Neme on the well-known “The Wildlife” radio show. It was a fun interview and I encourage you to visit her site and listen to it here. However, we also made a transcript of that show for those that may not listen to interviews. We were discussing a recent paper on the aquarium trade, which you can find online.


The WildLife” Radio Show hosted by Laurel Neme
The WildLife: Marine Aquarium Trade, Brian Tissot

Brian Tissot, marine ecologist, discusses the marine aquarium trade. He tells “The WildLife” host Laurel Neme how the United States, as the world’s largest importer of marine ornamental species for the aquaria, curio, home decor and jewelry industries, has an opportunity to leverage its market power to promote more sustainable trade and reduce the effects of this trade on coral reefs worldwide. The trade in coral and coral reef species for ornamental purposes is substantial and growing, with approximately 30 million fish and 1.5 million live stony corals removed from the ecosystem each year. The aquarium industry alone targets some 1,500 species of reef fish, and many die in transit, prompting collectors to gather even more animals to compensate for potential losses. With the United States accounting for over half of the ornamental trade in live coral, reef fish and invertebrates, Tissot and 17 other scientists are calling on this country to leverage its market demand—through additional regulation and enforcement, public awareness campaigns, certification of sustainable products, and assistance to spread best practices in source countries—to make the trade more sustainable.

Dr. Brian Tissot is a Professor in the School of Earth and Environmental Science at Washington State University Vancouver. His research is focused on the interface between biology, management, and policy and examines ecological interactions between habitat and commercially important marine fishes and invertebrates and the role of the community in managing marine resources. Through collaboration with state, federal and international agencies he is involved in a range of activities including basic research, research with implications towards resource management, and environmental policy development in Hawaii, Washington, Oregon and California. In Hawaii, he helped improve the management of an aquarium fishery along the Kona coast by being a part of a collaborative research program with state biologists and policy makers, SeaGrant extension, and the local community. On the west coast he is examining the role of continental shelf invertebrates, especially deep water corals, and how they function as critical habitat for commercially important fishes. Information from his work has been used to improve management strategies for coral reefs in the Pacific, west coast bottom trawling, and in the development of legislation in Congress. In addition to over 60 publications in scientific journals, Dr. Tissot’s work has been featured in Scientific American, National Geographic News, Smithsonian magazine and in the Washington Post. This episode of “The WildLife” aired on The Radiator, WOMM-LP, 105.9 FM in Burlington, Vermont on July 26, 2010.

The Interview

Neme: While we spoke recently, I asked Brian how he first got interested in oceans.

Tissot: Well, it’s been a long standing interest of mine. My father was in the Navy. And so, as you may know, when you’re a Navy family, we moved every two and half years. And many times, many times in the course of my life. But, the only constant thing in that was that I was always near the water. And so I got attached to having the ocean. It was one thing that was constant in my life. And so over time, that evolved from hanging out at the shore, to when I was thirteen I started surfing, and at that point it was my all consuming passion in life. But, gradually in college I switched over to an interest in the shore and things underwater and I science became a natural interest to me and I migrated more into marine biology. I still surf occasionally but I am more interested in other things like scuba diving and [riding] submersibles underwater and doing studies on the shorelines as well.

Neme: When did you first start working on the marine aquarium trade?

Tissot: Well, it’s interesting; I have always had a long term interest in aquarium fish. I mean, ever since I was a little kid I have had aquaria. And that’s pretty much right up until the last ten years or so. But in the mid 1990’s, I was an Assistant Professor at the University of Hawaii in Hilo on the Big Island. And as a matter of course of engaging with the community, I became aware of a conflict that was occurring on the west Hawaii coast, that’s the Kona and Kahala shorelines of the Big Island of Hawaii. And the conflict was between aquarium collectors, which are catching primarily live reef fish and transporting those to aquarium exporters, and people that either were [promoting] ecotourism, they had small boat operations and they are taking people out to view and photograph fish, or some of these large-scale dive tourism operations that would take people on ships to view fish as well. And so part of the conflict was the perception of decline in reef fish over time and also some ethical issues around whether you should even be taking fish like that. People don’t seem to have a problem in spearing fish to eat or fishing because that’s for consumption, but some people do have a problem with live catching fish that will never come back to their home.

Neme: And what kind of species are we talking about? Can you describe the types of reef fish and the variety that you see when you are snorkeling or scuba diving in that part of the world?

Tissot: Yeah, well Hawaii has some absolutely wonderful coral reefs, and it’s not as diverse in the number of species relative to other areas in the Pacific, but still there is over four hundred species of fish and 40 species of coral. And that’s much less than the thousands that are found in other areas like the Philippines and Indonesia, but still quite diverse.

Neme: Just by comparison, say that the reefs in the Philippines you said have thousands of species, different species of reef fish?

Tissot: Yeah, they are much more diverse, right.

Neme: And the Great Barrier Reef off Australia is that as diverse?

Tissot: Also very high. And that’s mainly because Hawaii is so isolated. It’s one of the largest isolated archipelagos in the world.

Neme: And are those fish, those four hundred species, some of them endemic, meaning found only in those reefs there?

Tissot: Yeah, absolutely. There are about 20% to 25% depending on how you count the species of fish and other things like invertebrates and seaweeds that only occur in Hawaii.

Neme: Are they always colorful fish? Are they, you know we all have this image of all the parrotfish and angelfish and clownfish that you know, “Finding Nemo” made famous?

Tissot: Right. All the fish are really colorful, some more than others, but generally what people want are really colorful fish that also can do well in aquaria. Some are very easy to take care of, can live on Tetramin and things like that, and those typically tend to be herbivorous fishes, fishes that live off eating seaweed and things like that on the reef, so they adapt pretty well to aquaria. Other ones, for example Butterfly Fish, which are also incredibly beautiful; have all sorts of different patterns and colors, uh they, a lot of them, eat corals only, and so in order to have them in your aquaria you have to be able to culture live corals, which is quite difficult and requires a lot of expertise, but there are lots of people that are very good at it, but its not for your amateur hobbyist.

Neme: When we talk about the marine aquarium trade, what exactly are we talking about? Are we talking about just fish, or corals too, or shells and everything?

Tissot: Well, the bigger trade is called the ornamental trade, and the ornamental trade has to do with a wide variety of organisms that are transported to various places across the world, not just aquarium fish. So aquarium fish account for roughly 30 million fish a year that originate from about forty-five countries that are just for the live aquarium trade. As part of that as well, there’s also millions of live corals which are transported, and sometimes millions of, basically, pounds of dead coral which is used in aquaria, you know as ornamentation and habitat and things like that. But also there’s deep sea red and black [coral] which occur not typically on coral reefs but deeper in warm and cold waters, and they’re used primarily for jewelry, so for pendants on you neck, earrings, things like that. And then also things like shells, there’s over 2500 [metric] tons of shells taken off coral reefs every year, and of course shells can be used by themselves or they can be used in jewelry, baskets, all sorts of things. And then there are the live invertebrates which are also collected for aquarium trade. But, you know, also things like dried seahorses, shark’s teeth, salmon bones, just a wide variety of different things, and really there are aquaria, jewelry, curios. Those are the main ones.

Neme: How much is that trade worth? Is there a value that’s known?

Tissot: Um, you know, it’s hard to put a number on it. It’s really a data-poor trade in the sense that a lot of it originates from countries in the coral triangle region, [primarily] Indonesia and the Philippines, and it’s difficult to track, but estimates are as high as a billion dollars a year in some cases, but, and it could be anywhere from 500-600 million and up, but it’s a pretty massive trade.

Neme: You had said that, um, just talking about reef fish for instance, that those three million fish involved in the trade originate from forty-five countries, so where are we talking about?

Tissot: Thirty million.

Neme: Thirty million, sorry.

Tissot: Yeah, it’s alright.

Neme: Big difference! Ha ha ha…. my apologies… and so from forty-five countries. So what, where in the world are we talking about? What are the top ten?

Tissot: Well, the most common ones are again in the coral triangle region and in Southeast Asia. And so that primarily includes the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands, but also areas like Fiji, the Great Barrier Reef, Sri Lanka, East Africa, India, there’s trades in all of these countries.

Neme: So those are the biggest suppliers, presumably of the trade…

Tissot: Right.

Neme: And then who, who are the buyers?

Tissot: Well, primarily the United States. We make up greater than sixty percent of the trade [which] is imported [into] the United States. Other ones are countries like Japan, and [the] European Union including the United Kingdom and Netherlands, France, and there are literally a hundred countries that are actually importing these organisms.

Neme: Recently there was an effort at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) that the conference of parties at the March 2010 meeting to protect, or increase protections on red and pink corals. Could you tell me a little bit about that proposal?

Tissot: Well, I don’t know as much about that as some of my co-authors do, but apparently this has been tried to be listed for several years, including three years ago during the last convention, and these are species that are part of the jewelry trade, so there is a lot of evidence, strong evidence that these are becoming quite rare and habitual beds that people have been harvesting for many years are showing declines in large individuals and they may have the inability to replenish themselves on the order of decades, so there is a lot of concern about those in the jewelry trade. And so the idea with CITIES, Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, was to get them listed so that people would have to have a license to import them. Unfortunately to get something listed under CITIES, particularly in Appendix II is what they’re trying to do, all the member [countries] have to have a fairly high degree of cooperation and agreement about that, and that was not the case for the last couple of meetings.

Neme: And then, for these other species, for the invertebrates, the seahorses, the reef fish, what is their level or status, you know level of protection I should say?

Tissot: Well, in most cases none. I mean, that’s what the problem is really, there’s very little [protection or] management at all. And so, most of the species become virtually endangered, it’s very difficult to get them listed on CITIES or other things like the Endangered Species Act of the United States. There’s just a lack of information. It’s very difficult to get information, (in) a lot of these other countries there hasn’t been a lot of rigorous studies done, because it’s very complex to go into a coral reef environment and be able to sort out human impacts due to one specific type of activity, in this case reef collecting, relative to others and come up with some hard data that really give you an idea of how many fish are taken. There’s a few studies that have done that, including some that we’ve done, but there’s relatively few, so for the most part we don’t have a good handle on exactly what the impacts are like in a lot of these source countries, but we do know from the few studies and from hundreds, literally perhaps more antictidotal studies, that in many places these fish, invertebrates, and shells are reduced to numbers that are, you know, less than ten percent of what their normal abundances are.

Neme: Within the ecosystem, what is the role of these different species that are involved in the curio trade, or the ornamental trade? I was going to say that sort of the reef is the habitat, but where do reef fish come in… where do the invertebrates come in… sort of.. Why do we care about a loss of these species?

Tissot: Yeah, it’s a very good question. I mean, again I mentioned the largest source of the trade is in the coral triangle region and that happens to be the areas of highest coral reef diversity in the world and also one of the areas that is most threatened by other human activities, like global warming, overfishing, ocean acidification, and in these areas, these ornamental species come from a wide range of different trophic levels, that is different positions in the food web and they play a lot of different roles, and so the impact is relatively spread out. For example, corals are really the base of a coral reef. They are the foundation. They are the habitat. So harvesting of them obviously has a direct impact in that you’re removing things that people themselves require, because they co-exist with the fish that are there, but also the other reef organisms, like fish that use it for habitat, other fish and invertebrates that might eat off a coral, or various things that use it for shelter. Other fishes and invertebrates are herbivorous fishes, so they graze seaweeds off of corals, so they maintain a balance [between] corals and seaweeds on reefs; other ones are predacious fish, which control the abundance of herbivorous fishes. Sharks, for example are top predators, and they’re taken sometimes and used for a variety of things including shark’s teeth and jaws, which are dried and sold. And so there’s a whole bunch of different levels that are basically represented in this trade. And, you know, what’s important is the cumulative impact of those, I mean this is no the only stressor, there’s lots of other things going on as I mentioned, and so this is on top of all of that, and it’s really has a potential to severely disrupt the ecosystem function of these systems.

Neme: So, it could almost be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, type of thing?

Tissot: Yeah, it’s an added stress, you know, and there’s two issues here that I think are really important to consider, it’s cumulative on top of other issues [and its impacts are unique]. Certainly things like fishing in general are much larger and broader scale than the ornamental trade, but that’s an industry that’s difficult for us to manage. The ornamental trade on the other hand, since we import over sixty percent of these, we are directly part of that, and so this is something that through regulations and laws, we can actually help improve the coral reefs in those areas. And every bit is important.

Neme: How are the items collected, and is it destructive to the ecosystem in the process?

Tissot: Well, there’s lots of different ways and different people use different methods. I mean, typically for aquarium fish, most people use nets of various sorts. Hand nets if they are going after single individuals or larger gill or corral nets if they’re going after groups. And those can be relatively safe in the environment; they may not cause much impact if they’re used correctly. But sometimes people also use other things, and in some areas in the Philippines for example, and other areas in Southeast Asia, people use cyanide to stun fish, which allows them to [more easily] capture them. And that’s a poison, as you know, and not only is it bad for the fish, a lot of fish die, but it also poisons other things that are nearby where the fish is captured. Other fish, because they are quite valuable, can be literally chased for hours on the reef, and people use crowbars and things to dig them out of holes and pull them out of there because they are worth a lot of money. I mean, these are extreme examples. How much is very responsible, careful collecting and how much is destructive is really not well known. But we do know there’s a whole range of methods here. Shells that are just taken off the reef and dried, and shipped and things like that.

Neme: And then what happens? So if you’re… Could you take me through the life of an aquarium fish? You know, once it’s collected, where does it go, how is it transported?

Tissot: Well, it’s a pretty amazing process. I mean, it can be very short in some places and very complex in others. The shortest possible route a fish could take is it is collected off a reef, say in Hawaii, and that person actually also is their own exporter, and they would export it and ship it to somebody, perhaps in Los Angeles, which is one of the biggest ports in the United States for aquarium fish. And then that person, the primary importer would then sell them directly to aquarium shops, and then people would buy them there. But in some cases, in the Philippines for example, the collectors actually give them to middlemen, and there may be two or three different middlemen, which are either financing some of the boat operations and things like that, and that eventually goes to an exporter and an importer. So literally, the fish can be taken off the reef, they can be put in bags and then handed to another person, and to another person, and another person. And some of these could literally take weeks to actually get even to an exporter. And of course the concern there, and we know this is the case in some places, that you know that the water quality might get bad, the fish might be [held with] too many [other fish], the oxygen concentration could drop, and you can get a high amount of mortality if it’s not carefully managed. And again, there are some people that are very careful about this, and they can end up with less than one percent mortality, and we know that’s the case in some places. But other people are not really that concerned about where the fish end up. All they really care about is collecting and getting those fish. Particularly in the Philippines there’s a lot of what we call rovers, which are people that don’t really live in the [areas they collect], they just kind of [cruise] around, they live in certain villages, but they drive around all over the place and get as many fish as they can from different places, and really just sell them as fast as they can. And so, it’s really not in their interest to take very good care of them as much as it is for people that actually [live] in an area and check the reefs out in front of their own home.

Neme: So you said that it could end up with less than one percent mortality… What’s the high end of that?

Tissot: Uh, could be one hundred percent. And sometimes that does happen. And again, this is something we don’t have a lot of data on, you know. It’s one of the things we’d like to get some funding to pursue, but basically there’s not a lot of studies. It’s gotten a lot better in many places over the past ten years. People have been very conscious of that and so, it may down to under ten percent mortality in a lot of facilities.

Neme: You had mentioned that some of the fish are extremely valuable… How much are these fish worth and how does that value change as it goes from the point of origin to the United States… to a pet shop?

Tissot: Well, it goes up considerably. In Hawaii for example, Yellow Tang, which is one of the most common caught fish in that area, some of the fish there generally are sold for a couple of dollars. That’s what actually people sell them for directly to somebody that might export them. I’m not sure what the importer would actually buy them for, but my guess is maybe five or ten dollars. But you typically see in the aquarium store in Portland, for example near where I live, is fifty or sixty dollars.

Neme: Fifty or sixty dollars for that same fish?

Tissot: Right. So you know, like most things, and there’s been economic analyses done on this, is that most of the money [made] is actually on the retailer end, which is true of, you know, a lot of trades of course, not just this one. But typically, most of the profit is made in the United States.

Neme: In the United States, is… this trade is perfectly legal, is that correct?

Tissot: Uh, with the two exceptions, yes. There are some things that are banned. Queen Conch is [mostly banned]. There is a number of species that are listed by CITIES and the Endangered Species Act, Staghorn corals are another one of those, that they cannot be legally imported or collected in the United States.

Neme: But most other things, most of the reef fish and what not, can be?

Tissot: Well, yeah, right. There’s thousands of species [on a] coral reef and CITIES only really protects five or six groups of those. And so there’s really only a couple of species, plus live corals and live rock, which are explicitly [protected]. So just a few, out of the thousands of coral reef species, are currently listed.

Neme: Can you tell me about any impact from this ornamental trade that you’ve seen on specific species?

Tissot: Well, most of my work has been in Hawaii, and so it’s probably very different than what you would expect in other areas, like the Philippines and Indonesia. So I haven’t had much first hand experience there, except way back in the late seventies, when I had lived in the Philippines for a short time. But in Hawaii, we don’t really see a lot of destructive fishing practices. For the most part, people are very careful. There have been instances where people, for example, have gone out at nighttime and have broken coral to get fish which down into the reef at night and they are a little easier to capture. That’s about the worst I’ve actually seen. What you do see, and it’s not something you actually notice as much as you can measure with a scientific study, is the reductions in the number of individuals. So before the management was implemented there, fish were reduced as much as fifty percent on reefs, and that primarily occurs with yellow tangs. So half of the fish were gone, and so the other half were what were left, and that’s much less than you would expect in the natural environment.

Neme: With management, can you describe, you know, how is that balanced? I know you’ve done a lot of work related to community management of fisheries in Hawaii…

Tissot: Right…

Neme: And there’s this inherent tension between collecting things off the reef and then, say, tourism, to look at things on the reef…

Tissot: Right…

Neme: When one will reduce it up to fifty percent and the other wants to see as much as you possibly can…

Tissot: Right…

Neme: Can you tell me more about that conflict and how you can resolve that?

Tissot: Well, it’s difficult. We’ve been working, and I say “we”, I mean primarily Dr. William Walsh. Bill Walsh is with the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources in West Hawaii, he’s really been the lead person on doing that, but there’s a lot of people in the States that are involved in the industry and trying to regulate it. But the fundamental conflict is, as you said, is really people that want to view the fish, that get services from those and those that actually want to harvest it, “the goods” per say, you know and especially collectors that take live reef fish. And so if you think if there’s not too much going on with collecting then it should be fine, but the perception is that it’s… that a lot of fish are being taken. So when we did a study in the late 1990’s, we found again that over half of the yellow tangs were being taken. Now, we determined that by comparing fish in areas that were known to be collection sites relative to ones that were closed, where it was illegal to fish. And so, that conflict has been going on for quite a long time. So the community put a lot pressure on the legislature to do something about it and they acted, and this was primarily State Representative of Dave Tarnas, who was a marine resource manager familiar with these issues, and he was from West Hawaii, and he [helped to] pass a bill called “Act 306”, which actually helped create a very flexible management strategy for West Hawaii. One of the few places in the state that has this kind of strategy, and it created this large region for the entire West Hawaii coastline called the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area. And one of the mandates, and there are many, were to help establish a sustainable aquarium fishery by involving the community and by closing at least thirty percent of the areas to aquarium collecting. And this is why they’re called Marine Protected Areas, or MPA’s. And so, the MPA’s were implemented with community recommendations as to where they would go in the end of 1999. They were closed in the beginning of the year 2000, and we’ve been studying them ever since. So, going on eleven years right now.

Neme: And, has that resulted in increases in reef fish?

Tissot: Yeah, what we have found is rather remarkable. In the areas that have been closed to collecting, the fish have increased over fifty percent. And so, they basically have come back to what we believe are natural levels. Levels that, you know, were before they were actually collected. And so this is overall for the whole West Hawaii coast. And we’ve also seen that the aquarium fishery is [doing] better than ever. And we don’t know exactly why that is. Some of that could be due to the Marine Protected Areas. It’s most likely that it’s a growing industry and it’s doing well, and people are making good profit. So it seems that there’s been winners in both cases, both the people that now have these fishery replenishment areas, and these are principally the areas that dive co-operations go into, there’s lots of fish. Aquarium collectors have their own areas where they collect. And in some ways the conflict has been separated spatially to where they’re in different areas. Unfortunately, there still is conflict. There’s quite a bit of it. It’s not been totally resolved, and I think that some of these things never completely go away because there is always disagreement about how you share common resources. But it has improved quite a bit.

Neme: And then do the fish migrate so that if, you know… If fish are coming back in the Marine Protected Areas, will they eventually move, or check out the non-protected areas, and then possibly improve what’s available for collection?

Tissot: Yeah, you know, that’s a really interesting question. And there is the of science of Marine Protected Areas is to help replenish fish outside the areas where the MPA’s occur. And so, thirty-five percent of West Hawaii is actually closed to collecting. Thirty percent are fishery replenishment areas, plus five percent from previous areas. The other sixty five percent is wide open. And so, MPA’s have the potential to replenish those fish [in open areas] in two different ways. One of which is called spillover, and that is as fish increase in abundance inside the Marine Protected Areas, the densities get so high that fish naturally migrate out into other areas, and in this case open areas. And we have done studies, this is a paper primarily authored by Ivor Williams, who is now with NOAA in Hawaii, and it showed that if you look at the boundaries of these Marine Protected Areas right next to open areas, that the abundance of fish there was not significantly different from inside the protected areas, but definitely different as you move further away, out into the open areas, suggesting very strongly, in this case adult Yellow Tangs were actually moving out. And we know that they move hundreds of feet, perhaps thousands of feet and so that was kind of suggesting that there’s quite a bit of movement going into these open areas. And that could provide some replenishment of adults. Unfortunately the aquarium fishery in Hawaii doesn’t really target adults, they target juveniles, so it is hard to know how that directly benefits the fishery. But it benefits them in the long run because the adults, of course, are what reproduce and provide small fish [through recruitment] and that should help in the long term.

Neme: Why does the aquarium fishery target juveniles? Just because they are smaller?

Tissot: Yeah, people usually have a ten or twenty or thirty gallon tank and you don’t want a six inch fish in there, so they typically take these inch and a half, two inch fish at the most, and those are selected and sold. So it’s unusual in that sense. They’re not taking the big fish, for the most part they are smaller, medium size fish.

Neme: And don’t they grow, or in an aquarium will they not grow as much?

Tissot: Well, they will. They will grow, but they only generally grow as big as the aquarium could allow them to, so that will limit their size to some extent.

Neme: Okay….

Tissot: Because the aquarium won’t get big…

Neme: Ha hahah… You had mentioned a second mechanism…

Tissot: Yeah, the second mechanism, how Marine Protected Areas might help enhance the outside areas in fisheries, is called recruitment enhancement, or larval seeding. And the general idea is where adults in Marine Protected Areas become so abundant that when they reproduce, their babies, which will drift in the ocean, for in this case Yellow Tangs will drift for about [two] months, will then move into outside areas and help seed those areas and increase the abundance out there. And we have a study that we’re hoping to get published here soon, this is authored primarily by Mark Christie and Mark Hixon at Oregon State University, and we used genetic markers, microsatellites, and actually found four pairs of adult Yellow Tangs, we actually found their offspring had settled onto a reef in an adjacent area. And what we showed was that adults inside Marine Protected Areas provided larval fish to areas outside Marine Protected Areas, but also to other Marine Protected Areas, and even fish that were in open areas provided larvae to inside Marine Protected Area. In other words, there’s high connectivity between all these populations. That’s the whole idea of Marine Protected Areas and [an MPA] Network, which is what’s in West Hawaii, that it all kind of works together to increase the fish across the whole coastline and perhaps to places, like Maui, by drifting in the ocean.

Neme: So now that you’re starting to work in Maui, will you be able to tell if that is how far that impact will reach?

Tissot: If we did another study like that… those studies are fairly expensive, but yeah it wouldn’t be that hard to do that, to see they’ve gone that far. I mean one of the fish we found went, [almost two] hundred kilometers. In other words, the adult was [two] hundred kilometers from where we found its offspring. And so, from one part of the Big Island to Maui is not even that far, so it definitely could do that. We don’t have plans for a study like that, but might be something that we could do in the future.

Neme: Interesting…. And then, I’m just curious, because a lot of the studies it seems focus on Yellow Tangs, is there a reason for that?

Tissot: Well, we primarily use tangs as they are a proxy for the trade in general. And the main reason is 70-80% of all the fish harvested in West Hawaii, and Hawaii in general, are Yellow Tangs. And so, they’re an icon for the industry, but keep in mind the aquarium industry in Hawaii literally has hundreds of species. Although really, there’s about eight fish that constitute over ninety percent of the fishery.

Neme: You recently released a paper, in the journal Marine Policy, on how U.S. ocean policy and market power can reform the coral reef wildlife trade. So I wanted to talk about, both what prompted this call to action, and then what you’re recommending?

Tissot: Well, the paper actually came out of a workshop, which occurred during May of 2009 in Washington D.C., which was on international trade in ornamental species, and this was organized primarily by Cara Cooper, the Environmental Defense Fund, and Barbra Best at USAID, and sponsored by the KingFisher Foundation. They brought together a wide range of experts, over forty people that were scientists, policy makers, government, and people in the industry. And basically, the idea was to find if there’s a consensus about the trade from all the different perspectives. Kind of do a very broad literature review, I mean for my one section on Ecological Impacts, I looked over two hundred papers, and I did that along with one of the coauthor’s [on the] paper, Todd Stevenson, who’s my graduate student here at Washington State University who assisted on the paper. And all these people [pulled different] information together. For one day, we had talks about the trade, trying to get everybody up to date on that. And then, the second day was working groups talking about solutions. And so, this paper basically outlines what we found in terms of the trade itself, the impacts, management, and also what we recommend in terms of ways to improve it.

Neme: And given that the U.S. is sixty percent of the market, of demand, how can the U.S…. you know, what reforms can the U.S. make to make the trade more responsible?

Tissot: Well, generally, what we’ve found is there are four main areas [for action] that we recommend. And since the U.S. is the leading importer, we can also provide leadership and help change [the trade]. First of all that the laws that currently exist are inadequate. And as you mentioned earlier, CITIES, Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species, is difficult to use to regulate the ornamental trade into the United States. So that law by itself is not sufficient. And so, what we recommend is new laws that would help promote a more sustainable trade. That’s literally, trying to put some kind of limits on imports, very carefully obviously because this is something that is quite difficult, and find a way to import fish where there is some [information] about where they came from and how they were collected. In other words, try to be selective about [companies] that are very careful in harvesting fish and transporting them, versus those that do not. And so, have a law that would filter that out.

Neme: And to get that kind of knowledge about where they came from and the way they were collected, what would that require?

Tissot: Well, that’s going to be one of the more difficult aspects of it. And I think that we all agree that this is a very difficult problem. Even these things that we’re recommending are likely to take a long period of time. But I think that there needs to be some leadership here. We need to change things. It’s just that the currently the way it’s going, is not sustainable. And so, one of the second recommendations is that we need to promote reform and best practices in source countries. And so, the U.S. again as a leader in the world can help, and we’re doing that now, and we should continue to do that in places like the Philippines and Indonesia, help improve their management practices by supporting them, training them, working with communities. There’s lots of good people in those countries that are very good at what they do, and getting it so they are the ones that are actually able to provide, for example proof that their product is sustainable. So along with that, and this is kind of item number three, would be to provide some kind of market incentives. And this could be like the Seafood Watch program, for example or other seafood programs that label seafood as being from good fisheries, okay fisheries, and bad fisheries. By the same token, you could have certain kinds of exporters that have incentive to prove that their fish are being sustainably fished, and handled, and marketed. And so, provide a way of certifying those kinds of importers and collectors, and being able to show that there’s a supply chain that involves good practices. And so that shifting in market demand would be really important. And a huge part of that, and this is one of the reasons we wrote this paper, was to improve education [and awareness}. Make people aware of what this issue is. That it is an important issue and what they should do about it. I mean, freshwater fish for example, ninety-five percent of those fish are [artificially] cultured, and that is very different for marine fish, where ninety-five percent of fish are wild-caught.

Neme: And what about your fourth recommendation?

Tissot: The last point, the fourth thing we recommended, was to improve enforcement because even with the current laws and regulations enforcement is very inadequate in the United States. And that is that there [are numerous] ports of entry, which imports come into, there’s only so many of those, there’s only so many people that can handle this and they’re really inundated with too much work. So if we did increase regulations it would require much better enforcement and that would actually make these laws work.

Neme: Who at the ports… would that be customs, the Fish and Wildlife Service wildlife inspectors?

Tissot: Yes, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Neme: And because there’s only, like a little bit more than one hundred, one hundred and fourteen I believe, Wildlife Inspectors across the whole country, so… a staffing issue as well…

Tissot: At the talk I heard at the meeting it was bewildering in terms of what they have to deal with. And not only is there not many people but the training that somebody would have to have to deal with to identify different species of fish and corals and shells is just amazing, you know, you really have to know what you’re doing and that takes a lot of time. And so to do that right, you know, this needs to be more money put into this to build, you know, a good trade, a trade that people can be assured that what they’re doing is not significantly harming coral reefs.

Neme: Taking each of these steps in turn, it seems that a lot of it is hinged on the “best practices”. And are those, it sounded from the discussion that we’ve just been having, that a lot of those “best practices” are already known, or is there more research that needs that needs to go into what works, you know, what types of management practices are better?

Tissot: Yeah, well I think that there’s a fair amount of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t, but I think that the key thing is a lot of places is that the communities themselves have to come up with something that works. It’s very difficult to have “top-down” management. And in the Philippines for example, it’s really the local municipalities that have most of the legal authority. And so, you really want community based management as much as you can, although if you have larger laws that provide a framework, that can be extremely useful as well. So there might be different solutions in different places. So the idea’s to provide some economic development and scientific expertise and work with people to where they find solutions that work, and then try to get their products to market, where people say, “Hey, this is a good fish. This has been harvested from this village, which is known for these kinds of practices,” and that there’s some assurance that that’s true. That would be, you know, a reasonable way to accommodate that with those fish.

Neme: And then is there, like you had mentioned the Seafood Watch, is it possible to include this within that, or is there any organization that is working on certification?

Tissot: There is the Marine Aquarium Council, or MAC, they have been trying to do this for many years, in particularly the Philippines but throughout other places in the world, in the Pacific, but it’s been very difficult. And I think they’ve had some success, but a large part of their inability to make it work is that that’s only one piece of the solution. And so we believe that these other pieces have to be in place. In other words, people can be certified and shown that they have good practices if indeed there’s enough training and oversight, and these things actually work, but then people need to know that here’s a product that actually has a chain of custody for example that we know there’s good practices. People need to be educated about that. They need to know at the pet store, be able to make a choice, presumably based on one that is certified and one that isn’t. And of course, all of that requires, among other things, regulations, improved management in source countries, things like that. So that’s just one piece of the puzzle, but certainly an important one.

Neme: And then on the enforcement, what’s required for that? You talked a little bit about staffing and budget…

Tissot: Well, that’s really the biggest thing is that the ports that do exist, again Los Angeles is a primary port for imports just because the largest volume is in the Pacific, [although] there is a fair amount coming in from the Atlantic and the Caribbean as well, but just not enough people. Not enough physical people to sit there and sift through all these things. And so, they get hundreds of shipments a year, each shipment can be multiple boxes, each box can have multiple bags, each bag can have multiple species, and you can imagine what it’s like to go through these things day after day. It’s very diligent, very time consuming work, and they just need more people that are trained to do that. And of course, for a lot of the species that are coming in there are no laws that are preventing them from coming in, and we don’t know how they were collected or anything. So that’s one link in the chain but it’s part of a larger recommendation that we’re making.

Neme: And what has been the reaction to these recommendations?

Tissot: Well, it’s still a bit early so I can’t say too much. But we have seen a few people that have written about our paper. In particular, some hobbyists have actually taken pause to think about this, and I’d like to believe and I think that this is true, is that most fish hobbyists in the United States are very concerned about where their fish come from, and I’m sure they’re concerned about coral reefs. And it’s not that they’re not concerned about it, it’s just that it’s very difficult to be able to know what to get and where it’s from and how to distinguish between good players in the market and bad players. So one of the reactions that we’ve seen that was published recently was that there really should be some movement on the role of the hobbyists in terms of this issue. And I think that’s been very positive.

Neme: Well, that is interesting because often times the hobbyists could be against it, but in this case, probably why you have an aquarium in the first place is because you love it.

Tissot: Right. And I have no problems with aquariums. I think they’re great. I’ve had one for many years and they’re great educational tools as long as people know really how to take care of their fish and do a good job… there’s nothing wrong with them at all. In fact, you’d hope that people who have these would make them even more sympathetic towards conservation of coral reefs, the very ecosystems they came from. So that’s a group that should be very concerned about this, and I think they are, you know. But on the other hand, there are a lot of people that are threatening the industry, and so they often get threatened with lots of cases that are trying to shut them down or eliminate them. And so, yeah, not everybody’s happy about what we probably had to say, I imagine.

Neme: What’s the next step then?

Tissot: Well, the next step from what I understand is to try to lobby for some new legislation. I mean I have next steps myself personally as well, but I think that’s kind of the next step from this paper, would be to try to get some laws, some bills introduced that would actually start to address some or all of these issues.

Neme: And so, if people were interested in learning more about this issue, where should they go? Are there any websites you’d recommend, or organizations you recommend they check out?

Tissot: Right, yeah, sure. There’s a bunch of them. And again, Cara Cooper was one of the lead people on this project, she’s with the Environmental Defense Fund ( , they would obviously be a good one to look at. Some of the other groups, Pew Environmental Group (, might be places where you could find information. NOAA of course has a lot of information about the ornamental trade on their websites ( There’s actually a lot of literature, including hobbyist sites on the web, I would just encourage people to search for aquarium trade or ornamental trade, and they’ll find quite a bit of information. And a lot of research papers, you know. People can certainly contact me as well ( I guess the only caveat I would have about what I’ve said here is that I’m a scientist and so my expertise in the area of ornamental trade is primarily focused on ecological impacts and ecosystems, and my comments on policy, on economic, on social sciences and other aspects of the trade are better addressed by a lot of my coauthors. So I would encourage people to contact them directly if they have questions about different aspects of the trade, as they’re much more knowledgeable then I am about this.

Neme: Fantastic. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me.

Tissot: Well, you’re very welcome.



One response to “The WildLife: Marine Aquarium Trade, Interview with Brian Tissot”

  1. Did your mother know you were going to be a scientist, a phd? She was proud of you. I recall her Asa happy,smiling friendly person. We socialized, attended teas, luncheons, dinners, etc. could you publish some pictures of her on your dr. Abalone web site? Charlotte McDaniel

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