Ethical and Sustainable Fish Purchasing

A Guide to Ethical and Sustainable Fish Purchasing

By: Gabbie Baillargeon, B.S., Tim Lyons, M.S., and Kevin Erickson, Ph.D.

Published December 22, 2020


Whether you’re new to the aquarium hobby, planning to expand and upgrade your tank, or a seasoned veteran, it’s important to practice ethical fish purchasing. When you walk through the doors of your local fish store, or the metaphorical doors of online ordering, how do you really know where your fish come from? The simple answer is that many times you don’t. This dilemma is the root of many sustainability challenges facing the marine aquarium trade. Without information on where and how fish are caught it is difficult to assess and combat issues like population decline and illegal fishing methods. Other industries have successfully made the transition towards sustainability by effectively labeling their products so that consumers have the power to make informed purchasing decisions. However, in the aquarium industry this is still lacking due to the long and complex supply chain that transports a fish from reef to tank.

Synchiropus splendidus 2 Luc Viatour.jpg by Luc Viatour is licensed under CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated

Have you ever noticed how all of the fruits and veggies in the produce section of the grocery store list where they were grown? Maybe you’ve seen labels that say “certified organic” or “fair trade” on a variety of grocery items which certify that those foods were grown without the use of pesticides or unfair labor. This trend of food labeling is called eco-labeling. Eco-labeling was born out of an environmental movement that sought to hold sellers accountable for how and where their products were grown and harvested to create greater supply chain transparency. Although eco-labeling usually comes at a premium it has solved many of the problems plaguing the food industry.

The aquarium industry has made progress towards greater supply chain transparency by labeling if a fish was aquacultured and, at times, listing the country where the fish was harvested. This labeling system is far from comprehensive due to the lack of data about where fish are sourced (Shuman et al., 2004). Without fixing the issues inherent in the supply chain and developing a way to trace a fish’s journey from fisherman to distributor to exporter to store and all of the steps in between it remains nearly impossible to identify if a fish was caught in a sustainable way.

This article hopes to give you a general overview of the sustainability issues in the marine aquarium trade and provide you with easy ways that you can take part in ensuring the safety of wild-reef fishes while actively engaging in the aquarium hobby.

Steps to support a sustainable aquarium hobby

Sometimes, even well-meaning purchases can have negative implications on coral reef health if consumers aren’t informed about how to identify ethically sourced fish. In order to be an advocate for ethical fish purchasing it’s important to first take a step back and understand how the marine aquarium trade works, where there’s room for improvement, and what your role can be in creating a more sustainable aquarium industry.

One step is to practice ethical fish purchasing, a demand-side solution to support sustainably sourced fish and minimize harm to the environment. In practicality, this means learning what fish species and sources are the best choice to purchase without worry of harming the coral reef ecosystem. Currently, there is no straightforward rulebook for ethical fish purchasing, but there are a variety of good practices that can make a monumental difference in creating a more sustainable future for the aquarium industry.

  • Learning which species of fish are most sustainable,
  • Supporting commercial aquaculture initiatives,
  • Buying fish aligned with your hobbyist experience level, and
  • Staying informed about sustainability issues facing the aquarium trade.

We will go through each of these steps in detail, but before we can dive into personal sustainability actions let’s look at the larger marine aquarium trade framework and current state of the industry.

A Brief History

To put the global nature of the marine aquarium trade in perspective, millions of aquarium fish are harvested and sold around the world each year, with the United States being the largest importer and driver of demand (Rhyne et al. 2012; Wabinitz et al., 2003). This is truly a global and species rich trade with nearly 40 countries exporting and importing about 2,300 marine aquarium species. For an industry that involves so many people’s livelihoods and fish species there is little oversight, monitoring, and regulation. This causes problems with:

  • Traceability – how do you know where your fish really come from?
  • Lack of sufficient export and import monitoring to generate data on the status of fish in the trade
  • Illegal fishing occurring without accountability

Percent contributions of imported marine ornamental fish by country / region. –

New technologies have created a greater number of avenues for fish exportation. Similarly, innovative solutions to common husbandry challenges from across the industry have broken down the barrier keeping out newcomers to aquarium keeping and improved the ease and ability to keep a wide variety of fish. These advancements are one of the main reasons for an increase in the popularity of the marine aquarium trade over the past few decades. With this growth in popularity, we are also taking more fishes off the reef to meet consumer demand (Wood et al. 2001, Rhyne and Tlusty, 2012).

The marine aquarium trade is made up of a complex network of fisheries that rely on individual fishermen to hand collect fish. Most of the wild caught aquarium fish are sourced from the Indo-Pacific region. Once a fisherman collects a fish, usually by hand-netting them, the fish travels from the fishing village through a long and muddled series of distributors and exporters until it eventually arrives at its final destination – your tank. The steps in between collection, exportation, importation, and sale are very unregulated and few structures are in place to enforce the catch rules that do exist (Rhyne & Tlusty, 2012). This means that unlike your eco-certified grocery items, marine aquarium fish sourced from the wild are difficult to trace back to their export city, much less the specific reef where the fish was caught. This lack of traceability within the long supply chain means there is currently no system to keep track of how many fish per species are removed from each reef or even region. On top of not tracking the removal of fish from specific locations, there is a general lack of data on the biology and distribution of marine aquarium species.
The traceability issue can be boiled down to the supply chain having too many players and there not being a more direct line of contact between sellers and collectors. The Cairns Marine model in Australia demonstrates how shortening the supply chain leads to better ability to enforce hand netting only guidelines, track the number of fish caught, and direct demand to species capable of supporting a fishery.
On a global level, a major roadblock to supply chain transparency is a comprehensive export/import system that accurately tracks fish. Although it is not realistic to track the exact movements of every fish in the trade, a comprehensive system for keeping track of total imports and exports is currently lacking. In the United States, the Law Enforcement Management Information System is supposed to track the entry of all fish into the country. However, lack of clarity and improper identification of fish has led to misrepresentation of the trade until recently. The work of Dr. Andy Rhyne at Roger Williams University has allowed us to understand the movement of fish from country to country, quantify the total number of species involved in the trade, and the volume of fish traded each year (Rhyne et al., 2012, 2017). Even with this data advancement, we still need better data on the populations of fish and their exact route in the supply chain so that management decisions can be made with the best available data. Likely the only path to improving supply chain traceability is through cooperation between wholesalers and local governments to ensure effective regulatory structures to monitor the trade are put in place. This will help ensure we manage the wild populations we have, and that these ecosystems can continue to supply fish for future generations while sustaining fisher’s livelihoods.

Sustainability Challenges

The saying “pets are family” extends to the marine aquarium hobby as many hobbyists deeply care about the fish in their tanks and seek ways to improve the lives of their fish (Irvine and Cilia, 2017). The greatest hurdle to sustaining the aquarium industry is systemic change within the long supply chain towards traceability and better monitoring of wild-harvest import and exports (Rhyne et al., 2014). With this, more information on how individual consumers can support sustainability initiatives is needed to both increase the sustainability of the trade and change the public image of the trade.

“Touch her dream” by Fotografik33 – is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It is widely recognized that coral reefs around the globe are facing an onslaught of threats, largely as a result of human activities. There is growing concern that harvest of wild marine aquarium species for the trade will only exacerbate the degradation of coral reefs caused by pollution, overexploitation of top predators, and climate change (Rhyne et al., 2014). In recent years, the popularity of fish keeping has drawn sharp criticism from environmental groups. This includes calls for complete fishing bans of wild-caught marine aquarium fish. Recent press about the marine aquarium trade often portrays a narrative out of touch with reality and discredits its potential to promote sustainability.

Reading headlines like “The horrific way your aquarium fish are caught – with cyanide”, and “The dark side of Hawaii’s aquarium trade” might make someone new to the hobby have second thoughts. Although there is truth in those articles, the one-sided portrayal of the trade by such headlines detracts from the core sustainability issues and possible solutions. For instance, it is possible to be an enthusiastic hobbyist and support sustainability when given the right resources and information to feel empowered to make eco-conscious fish purchasing decisions that support ethical fisheries.

One of the key sustainability issues within the marine aquarium trade is the use of cyanide to harvest fish (Jones & Steven, 1997). Cyanide is a neurotoxin, a chemical that targets the central nervous system, resulting in temporary paralysis of any fish it comes into contact with. Fishermen will oftentimes spray cyanide into the water near the fish they are targeting making it easier to catch them with a net. One of the sustainability concerns of cyanide fishing is the unknown long-term effects of cyanide on the health of these fish. However, cyanide is documented to instantly kill any invertebrate it comes into contact with, posing a serious threat to coral reefs. The cyanide is typically sprayed in an area where corals are present, causing significant habitat loss to already struggling coral reef systems. For these reasons, cyanide fishing is classified as an illegal and destructive fishing method.

Although there is active research to develop a test that can tell if a fish up for sale was caught using cyanide, reliable, quick, and easy testing isn’t available yet (Breen et al., 2019). Even if a fish tested positive for being caught using cyanide down the supply chain, it is unlikely that the fisherman would be held accountable due to the lack of regulatory enforcement in the source country and inability to accurately trace the fish back to the responsible fisherman. Cyanide fishing is not a universal sustainability concern within the entire marine aquarium trade, but where this destructive fishing method is prevalent it causes serious harm to coral reef ecosystems. Fisheries in Hawaii, Fiji, and Australia lead the industry by example of how they have eliminated the issue of cyanide fishing through stringent regulations and enforcement. Buying a fish sourced from one of these places ensures that you are not supporting a trade that involves cyanide fishing. Incidences of cyanide fishing are highest in Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines.

Unfortunately, Indonesia and the Philippines export the most fish per year, so the solution is more complex than simply sourcing fish from other countries (Rhyne et al., 2015). Not only would excluding these countries from exporting to the US be detrimental to fishermen and their families, but it would also lead to supply chain collapse. This means that the solution needs to come from better testing technology and strengthening the ability to track a fish’s journey through the supply chain.

Proposed Solutions

To achieve a sustainable future for reefs and the aquarium hobby, experts have outlined what a sustainable and equitable trade looks like. It starts by understanding that the aquarium industry as a whole must work to uphold what’s referred to as the “Coral Reef Social-Ecological System” (Rhyne et al., 2014). This definition highlights the connection between the fishermen, dependence on harvesting fish to provide for their families, and the need to maintain the health of the reef ecosystem for future generations. One of the intrinsic values of the marine aquarium trade is its role in supporting fishing communities through providing livelihoods for fishers. At the heart of the sustainability dilemma is how to direct fisher’s effort on sustainable species and preservation of natural resources for future generations to benefit from. On the ground training in these fishing communities has led to greater awareness of their relationship with the reef and responsibility to preserve it while engaging in the marine aquarium trade. Without working to uplift both the human and marine components of this system, long-term sustainability can’t exist. This means that a comprehensive solution to solving sustainability problems, like cyanide fishing and overharvesting, must recognize the consequence of management decisions on both reef and fishermen.

Experts in marine aquarium trade dynamics have pointed out how short-sighted complete fishing bans are, and how ineffective management decisions based more on public opinion than long-term datasets and known fish biology can be (Rhyne et al. 2014). There are doubtless sustainability issues within the marine aquarium trade, but without looking at the intertwined social, economic, and ecological consequences of sweeping management decisions like fishing bans, it does not promote long-term sustainability. In fact, studies show that banning wild harvest will more likely lead to an increase in illegal fishing activities rather than safeguard fish populations (Rhyne et al., 2014). That is why it is imperative to work with communities, like those of island nations in the Indo-Pacific, to sustainably target and harvest fish. This is in line with research that has proposed an alternate view of the trade – a tool for preservation of coral reefs and the communities who depend on them. To this point, community engagement by a limited number of marine exporters in the Philippines has sought to elevate sustainability practices by teaching local fishermen how to effectively utilize hand-nets in place of more destructive fishing practices (Adams 2015). By acknowledging the socioeconomic needs of the majority stakeholders, these training programs provide an economically feasible alternative to destructive fishing practices that ultimately serves as a positive driver of change.

Let’s talk about the actions you can take to support the continuation of the trade and preservation of coral reefs and those that depend on them through ethical fish purchasing.

1.     Characteristics of a Sustainable Marine Aquarium Fish

When it comes to choosing what fish species will do well in a wild harvest fishery or in your aquarium tank, not all fish are created equal. Fish biology and the popularity of a certain species in the trade all play into how sustainable that fish will be to continuously harvest.

“Blue Green Chromis (Chromis viridis)” by berniedup is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

For example, the green chromis Chromis viridis is the most popular species in the marine aquarium trade with 796,771 fish traded in the year 2011 (the latest data point available) (Rhyne et al., 2015). The green chromis has been targeted by the fishery for decades and still remains abundant in its natural geographic range. How is this possible? The green chromis has some key biological traits that make it suitable to sustain heavy fishing:

  • Produces lots of eggs and reproduces often
  • It grows and matures very quickly, relatively small body size
  • Hardy fish – does well in beginner tanks and during transport

Not only is the green chromis naturally built to rebuild its population quickly under fishing pressure, but there are also aspects of the trade that contribute to its sustainability:

  • Wide natural geographic range allows the species to tolerate high fishing pressure without fear of extinction, though localized declines are possible
  • Unlikely to be caught with cyanide

For these reasons, the green chromis is one of the most sustainable fishes on the market. Surprisingly, another favorite, the yellow tang Zebrasoma flavescens, is also very sustainable due to their quick growth and reproduction. This is supported by years of data from the Hawaii department of natural resources which shows that overall yellow tang abundance in West Hawaii has increased 58% from 2000 to 2013, and they estimate that nearly 3.6 million fish inhabited the area in 2015 (Department of Land and Natural Resources State of Hawaii, 2015). These suggestions and assertions are supported by a recent study (Baillargeon et al., 2020) that centered on determining the sustainability of popular species in the marine aquarium, with the overarching goal of providing consumers with a road map to ethical fish purchasing. Hopefully this work will be broadened in the future to include more species, and a consumer sustainability guide will become available so that consumers can have quick and easy answers about what fish are sustainable. Until then, using the key traits discussed above you can do some quick google searches to help you figure out how sustainable the next addition to your tank will be.


2.     Hobbyist Level

Buying a fish that requires specific care and maintenance that is outside of your scope of knowledge poses many challenges. Many vendors list the experience or care level required to care for the fish, along with its general description. It is very important that you head the label warnings and do not buy a fish rated above your experience level. If a fish is listed as “advanced” care level, this means that it is very sensitive to its environment and most likely needs specialized care. If you do not have the skill level of “advanced” and still purchase this fish, it is likely it won’t survive long in your tank. This type of purchasing decision contributes to the issue of sustainability within the trade. Buying fish that are difficult to take care of without the experience to support those fish results in fish dying and needing to be replaced. This only further drives demand for this species and is not a sustainable practice. Moral of the story: buy fish in line with your experience level and tank setup to avoid more fish than necessary being harvested!
A slew of other sustainability concerns are raised when considering if a fish should even be in the trade, and therefore in your tank. Some fish grow too large or have too high a tank mortality rate for it to be reasonable that they remain in the trade. A 2014 paper “Is sustainable exploitation of the reefs possible?” directly addressed this question (Rhyne et al., 2014). The researchers suggest that 85% of the trade should be focused on the species that are most popular and shown to sustain abundant wild populations under fishing pressure. The other 15% would be devoted to more rare and specialized fishes. This would limit the issue of novice hobbyists purchasing a fish that is not suitable for their experience level. It would also minimize the damage to the biodiversity of the reef. Currently, lots of different species are removed from the reef in disproportionate numbers. Therefore, if the trade was more consistent and targeted this would minimize some overharvesting concerns.

“Blue tang (Paracanthurus hepatusa) of Sumida Aquarium in Tokyo Sky Tree Town : ナンヨウハギ(東京スカイツリータウン・すみだ水族館)” by Dakiny is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

A common mistake for consumers is to purchase a fish based on size and coloration without realizing they bought a juvenile fish. This juvenile fish may outgrow its striking coloration and become too large or aggressive to remain in the same tank setup when it transitions to being an adult. Some fish in the trade should simply not be available for sale due to their large size, unless they are destined for a public aquarium or very large tank (2000+ gallons) maintained by professional aquarists. Juvenile fish are often viewed as rare and cute additions to the tank, but they are more labor intensive considering they may have changing diets, sizes, and behaviors over time. A good tip is to be sure that if you are buying a juvenile fish you know how to care for them through all life stages and are equipped to do so.

A fan favorite, Dory, better known as the blue tang Paracanthurus hepatus, might seem like an appealing choice given its popularity from the Finding Nemo franchise, but you might want to think twice about that. A recent study (Baillargeon et al., 2020; Veríssimo et al., 2019) shows that the blue tang is not a very sustainable choice because its population is fragmented and it has relatively slow growth and reproduction. Besides concerns about growth and habitat, this species isn’t a great choice for most hobbyists because it will oftentimes outgrow an average sized tank setup considering it can grow to 12 inches long and requires a 100-180 gallon or larger tank. Knowing this, the blue tang should be avoided by novice hobbyists.

3. Commercial Aquaculture

The first place you should look when considering buying a new fish is the label. Oftentimes if a fish is raised in aquaculture it will clearly state “aquacultured” or “captive-bred” which means this fish did not come from a wild caught fishery. If this fish has characteristics that would make it difficult to maintain a sustainable wild fishery, then the aquacultured fish is a great choice. However, aquaculture is not always the best choice, nor is it the end all solution to promoting sustainability. If the species is wild caught, oftentimes the country of origin will be on the label, which can also give you a clue as to how sustainable it is. Fisheries in Fiji, Australia, and Hawaii are very sustainable and have no incidence of cyanide fishing, so you would be supporting fisher livelihoods by purchasing wild caught fish from them. The marine aquarium trade supports thousands of livelihoods and the need to support a sustainable future for fishers as well as reefs is a driving factor of shifting the aquarium industry toward sustainability.

The Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni) is by far one of the most popular marine aquarium species out there. Their docile demeanor, small size, and incredible coloration make them a perfect addition to your tank. However, the wild-caught Banggai cardinalfish is the most unsustainable fish in the trade. It is categorized as endangered by the IUCN as a result of overharvesting it for the aquarium trade. This species is the prime example why it is important to increase the monitoring structures in place and transparency of the supply chain, so we do not contribute to the extinctions of marine species.

Why did this fish fare so poorly under fishing pressure? These fish aren’t just unique to look at, their biology is very different from the typical reef fish. For starters, they have a highly specialized reproduction strategy where they incubate the eggs of their young in their mouths for a long period of time, this is known as mouth brooding. This technique limits the number of young they can produce in one clutch and also restricts the area they can populate since the young go through no larval phase. On top of that, this species is only located in the Banggai Archipelago of Indonesia, a very narrow geographic range. These factors make the Banggai cardinalfish susceptible to overharvesting, which is what has occurred.

“Banggai-Kardinalbarsch (Pterapogon kauderni) – 5340.jpg” by Amada44 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Unfortunately, too many fish were harvested and their population was not able to sustain itself under the fishing pressure. Since this species does great in a tank but is not sustainable to harvest from the wild, the best solution is to purchase captive-bred Banggai cardinalfish from commercial aquaculture companies.

Aquaculture is a great conservation tool and can allow us to enjoy species that we otherwise wouldn’t be able to sustainably harvest. Commercial aquaculture has really grown in the past few years and the number of species we can successfully breed has expanded (CORAL, 2019). All fish that were bred using aquaculture will have a label saying “aquacultured species” or “captive bred” to let you know that fish was not taken from the wild. Aquaculture is an important component of the trade. It helps relieve pressure on wild populations that are being overfished and can fill demand without damaging the natural population. Looking for fish that are sourced from aquaculture rather than wild-harvest, especially in the case of sensitive species, is a major step towards practicing ethical fish purchasing.

Potential of Aquarium Industry to Instill Positive Change

As many of you reading this already know, keeping a saltwater tank in your home can be extremely rewarding. Public aquariums are one of our best conservation tools that we can leverage to get people of all generations invested in caring for the marine world. Seeing fish swimming in a colorful aquarium never ceases to light up a child’s face and pique their innate curiosity. These types of interactions with wildlife are the seeds of becoming stewards of the ocean. The simple fact is that most people on this planet will never get to go snorkel on tropical reefs and have that personal connection to the reef; the closest they will get is pressing their nose against aquarium glass. Not only do aquarium tanks serve as an amazing educational tool to learn basic science and engineering, they have the ability to teach kids responsibility and stewardship at an early age.

An unexpected benefit of aquarium tanks is on your mental health. For instance, have you ever wondered why there is almost always a fish tank in a doctor’s office waiting room? It turns out that viewing moving water, teeming with life actually recenters our brain to this primal state of ‘blue mind’. This is a scientifically studied phenomenon that exposure to water actually slows your heart rate and puts your mind in a peaceful place, having a directly calming effect (Wallace, 2014). Given the popularity of keeping saltwater tanks and the wide-ranging benefits of the trade, it’s important to also recognize the cause for concern around the marine aquarium trade through the lens of sustainability, in order to be an active participant in fixing the system.

Future of Aquarium Sustainability and what you can do to help!

So next time you’re looking to buy new fish remember these simple steps you can take to promote sustainability in the aquarium industry and minimize harm to the natural coral reef ecosystem:
  • Buy fish aligned with your hobbyist experience level
  • Research your fish and make sure your tank is large enough and it will mix well with your current tank inhabitants
  • Check if your fish is available from a commercial aquaculture retailer
  • Check if this fish is a juvenile and what its maximum size is
  • Check out the basic biology of the fish and make sure it has those key factors that make a fish sustainable: quick growth and reproduction, large geographic range, and does well in aquariums
New research is always coming out so continue to stay informed on the state of the aquarium industry and advancements moving in a sustainable direction from the supply chain up. We all want to continue to enjoy our tanks and share our love for these fish and corals with others, so do your part to research what goes in your tank and ensure that you are making the best purchasing decision for you and the environment.


Gabbie Baillargeon is a graduate student interested in sustainable fisheries and quantitative ecology. She earned her Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology and Applied Mathematics from Roger Williams University, while working on research projects in Dr. Andy Rhyne’s lab. She is the 2018 MASNA Undergraduate Scholarship Recipient. Currently, she is pursuing her Masters Degree at the Quantitative Fisheries Center at Michigan State University. Gabbie is passionate about all things fishy and can be reached at:



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