Up until very recently, it has been difficult (if not impossible) for the average North American aquarist to know the specific origin of the animal he or she may be considering at the local fish store. Why does this matter? In the absence of any functioning third party certification program, point of origin has been the aquarist’s best tool when it comes to supporting sustainability through his or her purchase (if you’ve been to one of my talks, you have no doubt heard me say this). With the exception of some endemics from known sustainable fisheries (Hawai’i comes to mind), most fishes’ origins are unknown by the time they reach the local fish store–even the best store staffed by the most knowledgeble staff. This is, in my opinion, unfortunate, given many species vary greatly based on the fishery in which they were harvested in terms of environmental sustainability, fisher treatment and animal health. Said another way, a blue tang is not a blue tang is not a blue tang. This is why it is a move in the right direction that some companies are taking steps to make the chain of custody from reef to retail more trasparent through labels perhaps best described as ecolabels.
Very simply stated, an ecolabel should help the consumer make a more sustainable purchasing decision. In part this decision may be about enviornmental sustainability and in part it may be about socio-economic sustainability. In most cases it also is about animal health. In the same way a sustainably-sourced piece of seafood from a short supply chain may be both more sustainable and better tasting, a sustainably-sourced marine aquarium fish from a short supply chain will most likely be a more sustainable choice and a healthier, longer-lived animal. It’s a win-win, but only if the aquarist is educated about which marine aquarium fisheries are sustianble and from where the fishes they are considering are sourced. When it comes to the latter, ecolabels are a good start.
In North America, some aquarists can already have access to point of origin information at the local fish store through the Quality Marine QR Code tag announced a couple of weeks ago. Soon, a few North American fish stores expect to carry fishes from EcoAquariums Papua New Guinea (PNG), Ltd. These PNG animals will be accompanied by an ecolabel providing point of origin information. Los Angeles-based wholesaler Sea Dwelling Creatures has announced an ecolabelling program called SMART, which they say will be available to aquarists in the coming months.
Ecolabels are not a silver bullet, and, in the long run, a thrid party certification (and accompanying ecolabel) such as that which the Marine Stewardship Coucil (MSC) provides for seafood will be necessary. In the interim, however, the fact that aquarists can now have (and should demand) access to point of origin information at the retail level is a step in the right direction. To learn more about ecolabels and the marine aquarium trade, see my recent article at Reefs.com and stay tuned to a series of eNewsletter features in CORAL Magazine.