Are Captive Bred Fishes The Only Way?

Nowadays it’s not uncommon to see a hobbyist say, ‘I’m only stocking my tank with captive bred fish.’ Of course, their heart is in the right place, and it’s understandable why most people would think this is the best route forward for wild reefs. But is it? Is captive breeding the only way?


Above is a gorgeous little flame angel bred in Hawaii using a flow-through system.

The short answer is no. In fact, sustainably collected wild fishes are generally significantly less impactful on wild reefs than commercially breeding fishes inland. “Huh!?! What are you smokin’, Austin!?” Now bear with me for a minute, and know that I used to be the one asking what the person pushing this notion was smoking.

Okay so let’s look at what it takes to net collect a fish off of the reef:
  1. A tank of gas to fuel up the boat to go collecting.
  2. Dive and fish collection gear to use once at the reef.
  3. A temporary holding facility where ideally animals are held for at least a couple weeks prior to shipping.
  4. Fish shipping materials: styrofoam and cardboard box, bags, heat/cold packs.
  5. Fuel for the plane to ship the fish.
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Brian Greene is a phenomenal deep fish collector using sustainable methods to collect uber-rare specimens.

Now let’s look at what it takes to breed fishes inland:
  1. All of the above to source brood-stock.
  2. A facility to house brood-stock and rear live foods, larvae, and young fishes.
  3. Equipment to do all of the above (tanks, sumps, filter media, skimmers, salt, RO/DI, lights, etc.).
  4. Staff to do all of the above (they drive to and from work everyday consuming fuel and more).
  5. Utilities to keep the facility running (electricity, gas, water, sewage).
  6. Months upon months of work to bring fishes up to sellable size (which oftentimes are still tiny).
  7. Fish shipping materials: styrofoam and cardboard box, bags, heat/cold packs.
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A shot inside ORA, arguably one of the best commercial breeders stateside. These guys have the numbers game down to a science!

When you add up all the things necessary to successfully breed marine fishes inland, it’s easy to see how the carbon footprint is significantly greater than taking a boat out to a reef and collecting from the most efficient breeder in the world, mother nature.

Of course, there are a plethora of exceptions to this. Unfortunately not every collector out there is using sustainable practices. We need them to target the proper sex and age/size to ensure that the groups of fishes continue to breed in their natural range. If we go out and collect all the animals from one area, clearly there won’t be any left to breed.

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Cyanide being shot into the reef to stun fishes. This not only leads to the eventual demise of the fish but also the coral, driving fishes away and destroying the reef over time.

If a collector rips coral from their bases to catch fishes, chances are the coral will die, driving fishes away from that area since that was their home. If collectors are using cyanide, they will kill the coral resulting in the same effect, and on a much larger scale than just killing a couple colonies by ripping them up.

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Biota Marine uses flow-through systems in their hatchery in Palau keeping their footprint incredibly small.

Some commercial breeders use flow-through systems if they’re lucky enough to be near the ocean. This removes a ton of equipment from the mix, along with the necessity to produce synthetic seawater. Removing equipment from the mix cuts back on electrical consumption, thus reducing their carbon footprint.

Finally, we’re now seeing commercial breeders that rear so many animals, when you look at their carbon footprint per fish we’re getting really close, perhaps even lower, than that of a wild-caught counterpart. Leaping high-five to those that are making head weight in the numbers game!

At Aqua Box we search for breeders spending their time working with animals that are generally caught in regions known for cyanide fishing. Or deepwater animals where collectors are threatening their own lives diving down to unsafe depths in search of highly sought after fishes. Of course, we love seeing so many clownfish being produced, to the point where we do not have to ever worry about affecting wild populations. Everybody wants clownfish, right? So this is a phenomenal animal suited for captive breeding.

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We were ecstatic to work with these amazing captive bred Yasha Gobies (Stonogobiops yasha), who are unfortunately commonly sourced from regions utilizing less than desirable collection methods.

On the flip-side, last year we were offered captive bred Royal Gramma’s (Gramma loreto) bred in Australia. I could not have been more excited to see this wonderful little fish being aquacultured and offered to the trade! However after taking a step back, it hit me; this fish is in no way threatened, and I can have a diver sustainably collect a few dozen on Tuesday, and have them tanked in my office by Thursday. Or, we can have this fish collected by a diver, shipped to Australia where all the bullet points listed above for captive breeding are applied over months, then shipped back across the world to me. What sense does that make?

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Rufus Kimura is another amazing rebreather (and standard SCUBA) sustainable collector that we work with, here showing off the illusive Centropyge narcosis and C. boylei.

So while we’re huge supporters of captive breeding fishes, it’s important to realize it is not the end all be all of moving our industry forward. In fact, in many circumstances, it is more harmful to wild reefs than sustainable wild collection.

If you would like to explore this more, here are a few links to MACNA presentations where this is discussed in length:

Sustainable Wild Collection of Australian Fish and Corals by Julian Baggio | MACNA 2014

Are you being sold what you're told? Sustainability unveiled by Laura Simmons | MACNA 2016

Coral Reef Conservation, Expedition to Somaliland by Dr. Luiz Rocha | MACNA 2016

Ditching the Dump & Hope Approach: Sourcing, Quarantine & Acclimation by Austin Lefevre | MACNA 2016
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About author
Aqua Box
Austin Lefevre is the founder and owner of Aqua Box, a company that installs unique aquarium systems worldwide, and professionally quarantines and conditions marine fishes. Austin has been in the aquarium industry since 2002, previously working in local fish stores, coral farms, and heading up a fish breeding program.

Austin has been a bonafide fish nerd for his entire life. When the kids in elementary school were reading Dr. Seuss, Austin was reading Jacques Cousteau.

Austin has been published in Reefs Magazine,, and Reef Edition Magazine. He has presented at several smaller reefing events, along with MACNA 2016, and MACNA 2017. He has a soft spot for Pomacanthidae, particularly mesophotic reef dwellers. He’s been an avid SCUBA diver since the age of 12 and consistently seeks new aquatic adventures

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