Like most of you, I spend an incredible amount of time reading about and researching aquarium fishes, their wild habitats, and a whole host of tangential hobby-and-science-related stuff. Of course, when you are involved in some aspect of the aquatics trade, this stuff is really "required reading", so it's not only enjoyable- it's kind of important!
Having just recently launched Tannin Live!- our collection of live tropical fishes, I've become even more attuned to the "fishy" component of the freshwater aquarium hobby and trade. And this involves a lot of "refreshing" myself about a myriad of fish-specific topics. And one of the things that always strikes me, when considering the actual fishes themselves, is how few species we actually seem to have in the aquarium hobby relative to the abundance in nature!
Yeah, on the surface, that seems like a very "hobbyist-centric" attitude.
I mean, yeah, I suppose I should be grateful that we have ANY fishes, right? Especially when we consider the fragile nature of the natural habitats, the pressures on wild fishes, etc. It's a sort of strange "double-edged sword", if you will, filled with sort of self-serving, yet fairly accurate narratives that we've all heard before: On one hand, we might take too much...and on the other, we are losing fishes to other aspects of human intervention (i.e.; deforestation, climate change, pollution, etc.), and perhaps acquiring some to breed in captivity may be their only shot at species survival......a strange juxtaposition worthy of lots of discussion (although not really today's topic...).
But really, when you think about it- for every fish we have in the hobby, there seem to be dozens which, for one reason or another, never make it into the trade.
Obviously, there are a lot of reasons for it. First off, some are flat-out scarce, endangered, or otherwise challenged in the wild. And in my opinion, they should be left there. And then there are many which are simply hard to find...perhaps they are really good at hiding. Or maybe, they're abundant, but hail from a locale which is kind of hard to get to or ship fishes out of. Some are altogether unsuitable for captive life. Others are just not "chromatically exciting" enough for the average hobbyist to warrant being included in the trade with any regularity.
Of course, there may simply be another reason. Economics.
I know this was true in the marine fish trade: The local fishers are simply not aware of, nor economically motivated by- the "potential demand" for a fish. They need to concentrate on the "bread and butter" fishes that bring guaranteed income, not "by catch" or related species which may or may not find a market in the aquarium trade.
Now, with more and more "boutique" aquarium suppliers and hobbyist/breeder-driven businesses, perhaps some of these "unknowns' may find their way into the trade. For a great example of the potential, one need only look at the fishes from Amazonia.
I've been researching a lot about fishes in the Amazon region lately, and I am amazed at how many cool species are apparently fairly abundant, but simply not on the radar in the aquarium trade. The species richness of the Amazon and Orinoco basin is incredible- something over 3000 species from over 500-plus genera.
And literally, maybe a fraction of those are found in the aquarium trade.
Apart from the popular species of Tetras and dwarf cichlids, there are, for example, lots of species of knife fishes which remain relatively small, are not difficult to keep or feed, and would make really cool aquarium fishes in the right type of aquarium. Species like Racenisia, Adontosternarchus, Hypopygus, etc. Fishes which live in small flooded forest areas and live in leaf litter, twists of branches, etc. They're often not possessed of the most striking colors, but they are fascinating in appearance, behavior, and lifestyle.
(Image by Haplochromis. Used under CC BY- S.A. 2.0)
And of course, even in the popular characin families, there are numerous species that most of us who don't hold degrees in ichthyology ever even hear of, let alone, see- such as Corynopoma, Hemibrycon, Gephyrocharax, Microgenys, etc. Or the so-called "Darter Tetras" as well. Fishes that are probably netted quite frequently, and simply tossed back by the fisherfolk in favor of the more in demand (and profitable) Cardinal Tetras, Emperors, etc.
Now again, is this a "bad" thing for nature? Just because 200 of us are into some weird grey fish from The Orinoco, does that justify this?
I go back and forth on this stuff.
I mean, as a hobbyist/business person I admit that I have an inherently selfish point of view about wanting new fishes. Yet, putting further pressures on new species is probably not such a good thing, either. right? I've heard arguments on both sides, ranging from. "Well, all of the fishes which are not being taken are probably more abundant now because they are reproducing and growing free from the pressure of being captured for aquariums." to "We should take some of these 'by catch" species for the trade because reducing their populations somewhat helps with food resource partitioning, keeping the populations of more popular fishes healthy."
I mean, both sides have their pros and cons, I suppose- and I don't suggest that I have some great answer.
We could debate this topic from environmental, socio-economic, and species diversity positions "till the cows come home" and never reach a consensus that will make everyone happy. The simplest answer would be to simply leave everything alone; to not remove any wild fishes-new or previously untapped species- from their natural habitats.
On the other hand, with deforestation, global warming, pollution, and other man-made ecological disasters pressuring wild populations of fishes, the argument for getting some into the aquarium trade, where we have a shot at reproducing them in captivity seems pretty logical, too.
I read the other day that the Fijian government has ceased the exportation of wild-collected corals for the aquarium trade. Although sudden, this shouldn't come as any great surprise. There is a fairy robust aquacultured coral trade there which, if managed well, could supply the bulk of the demand for coral from this region. The problem, as I see it (and I'm just giving my opinion) is that it had become too easy, too profitable, too much of a "cash cow" for the industry to simply grab from nature, versus spending a considerable sum propagating more corals locally. There is room to do both, if managed well, IMHO.
And here I am, an aquatics vendor who has some vested interest in the collection of wild species, espousing my point of view on stuff!
Oh, the hypocrisy, right? Probably some warped "optics" here, huh? Yeah.
But I'm kind of thinking about it as an aquarium hobbyist, my commercial interests notwithstanding. I think that there is a need for both wild collection and captive breeding (both in the countries of origin and internationally) of freshwater fishes. Organizations like Project Piaba, which both studies the wild populations and fosters a strong and sustainable collection process (which benefits native fisherfolk) are doing fabulous work. And I wonder if we could realistically do even more? I think it would be cool to see some of the more unusual wild fishes from Amazonia, for example, propagated locally, which would provide the indigenous people not only economic opportunity, but help preserve the wild populations.
Sure, if it were that easy, we'd have done it by now, right? And I certainly don't have all of the answers. I realize that this piece might bring up some rather contentious discussions, and perhaps my ignorance (which I fully confess to) about the topic may be glaring and annoying to some who are well-versed in it. But it IS interesting and important to think about and discuss all of this stuff- and we should, even though it may bring out some rather aggressive points of view during the discourse. To simply turn our heads on rather touchy topics within our industry is not an answer. I know that I need to personally learn more and get involved in helping protect the wild habitats and supporting the native peoples of these regions who are trying to foster a sustainable trade while benefitting economically.
All that being said, there is still something incredibly exciting- romantic, even, about the prospects of some "obscure-to-the-trade" fish starting to appear in the hobby. With the talent pool that we have, and the technique which has been developed over the years, the chance for success with many new species is better than ever!
And with our understanding of the real challenges facing the fishes and habitats we love so much, it's never been a better time to get involved in supporting sustainably-minded operations, captive breeders, and scientists, as we strike a balance that will keep our planet healthy for generations to come.
That's my thoughts for today...No big, right?
Umm, yeah..it's a lot to think about/discuss/debate.
Stay curious. Stay studious. Stay honest. Stay passionate...
And Stay Wet.