The Disturbing Way Tropical Fish Become Pets

Although it can be fun looking at the brightly colored tropical fish in your tank, odds are these fish had a pretty traumatic experience prior to arriving at the aquarium. Believe it or not, most exotic fish are initially poisoned while swimming free in the ocean.

National Geographic published a disheartening report on how fish are captured for home aquariums. According to the United Nations, roughly 80 percent of tropical fish imported to the U.S. have been captured illicitly with sodium cyanide.

Sodium cyanide is a toxin that fishermen spray at exotic fish to effectively “stun” them. Once sprayed, the fish are temporarily unable to move and breathe, making them especially easy to snatch up. Alas, the health consequences aren’t always temporary for the fish. Some fish die instantaneously from contact with cyanide, while others struggle and expire a few hours later.

These premature deaths don’t net any money for the poachers, but as long as a high enough percentage of them stay alive to sell to pet stores, the fishermen seem to consider it a worthwhile gamble. It’s obviously much simpler to catch fish that can no longer move than to chase them around.

“That should be illegal!” you might say. Indeed, in most parts of the world it already is. While that’s the case in the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka – the three countries where most of the world’s exotic fish are collected – that hasn’t stopped fishers from using the cyanide anyway. Since the governments of these countries do little to enforce the laws against cyanide use, fishermen are unafraid of repercussions.

The cyanide isn’t just harmful to the captured fish, but also the habitat where the fish reside. Most tropical fish live among coral reef, which is already a highly endangered ecosystem. The cyanide exposure bleaches the coral and can even kill it.

It’s important to note that almost all tropical fish that wind up in people’s tanks come from the ocean. Though they’ve tried extensively, merchants of these fish have been largely unsuccessful at breeding them in captivity, meaning the best way to get more fish is to track them down in the wild.

The United States may not have jurisdiction over the waters in Southeast Asia, but it still yields major influence over this issue. Altogether, the U.S. imports 12.5 million tropical fish per year, meaning that its purchasing power is something fish merchants will listen to. If the U.S. demands accountability and refuses to accept fish that have been harvested in this manner, fish will probably follow suit.

Actually, the United States already has an appropriate law on the books to handle this matter. The Lacey Act forbids wildlife that has been captured illegally from entering the United States. Since most countries outlaw sodium cyanide to catch fish, that would classify these tropical fish as illegally captured.

Various animal organizations are currently lobbying the U.S. government to enforce the Lacey Act. Officials have the capability to test incoming fish for traces of cyanide, but these tests are not performed. If the U.S. were to start testing and refusing fish that were tainted with cyanide, the whole industry would be forced to change.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

84 comments

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

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Fred L.
Fred L2 years ago

One last thing: if you absolutely have to have tropical fish (wtf would you?), at least ensure that they come from a captive bred stock.

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Fred L.
Fred L2 years ago

It's not just foreign countries that pose a threat to reef fish. In Hawai'i, commercial tropical fish collectors have a lax set of rules to follow, and very little in enforcement of those rules. The former head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the agency charged with, among other things, protecting reef fish, is William Aila. His wife is a commercial tropical fish collector. Major conflict of interest that was never sanctioned.

http://www.staradvertiser.com/business/aquarium-fish-industry-draws-activists-ire/

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Marie W.
Marie W2 years ago

More victims of the exotic pet trade.

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Toni W.
Toni W2 years ago

Very informative article

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Toni W.
Toni W2 years ago

Thank you for sharing

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S Gardner
sandy Gardner2 years ago

I can't believe they poison fish before they come to our homes! No wonder there is such a high mortality rate for these pets!

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Jonathan Y.
Jonathan Y2 years ago

For those who don't think you can bond with fish, or feel love or companionship: I had a pair of Oscars (Astronotus Ocellatus, a kind of South American Cichlid) for years and I was very fond of them and vice-versa. They recognized me and let me pet them; I think they appreciated the care I took to replicate their specific habitat and breeding needs (slightly low-ph water, plants and snails from the Amazon, large flat rocks). They were a mated pair and provided many healthy broods of young which I traded for food, equipment, or other fish. Bigger fish seem to have more intelligence and individuality, but you can get great satisfaction from caring for small fish as well. Even with the common guppy or goldfish, give them lots of room, live plants, good food and plenty of aerated and well-filtered water and they will glow with health and happiness. Watching them thrive is a pleasure, same as caring for other animals.

People who put fish into bowls without filters, aeration or plants or who crowd fish into small tanks are also committing a crime!

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Margie FOURIE
Margie FOURIE2 years ago

This cannot be good for the fish to be in an aquarium, let alone the losses in getting them to the buyer.

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Peggy B.
Peggy B2 years ago

This is awful. I haven't had an aquarium for years, but when I did have one I bought my fish from fish breeders. Actually went and they let me choose the ones I wanted, just checked to make sure the were old enough and what I wanted were compatible. They bred the fish there so I knew there would be no disease and there water plants wouldn't be full of snails.

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