Sourcing Marine Fishes and Invertebrates

Collector and fence, hand nets.jpg
Sourcing Marine Fishes and Invertebrates

Experienced aquarists are aware that fishes from different regions of the world can have different levels of sustainability when acquired for their aquariums. The reasons for these differences may include collection technique (the use of cyanide for example), overharvesting, or poor handling after collection. The following are some general descriptions regarding the relative sustainability of animals from various regions. These issues are not static, and they can and will change over time as well as from one supplier to another. Also, please understand this information was compiled over 40 years and during that time, some details will have changed. In addition, this information is fairly subjective and may apply mostly to trade in the United States.

More sustainable sources for wild caught marine fish and invertebrates

United States - Reef animals collected in Florida and Hawaii are moderately well-regulated and only nets and traps are used for capture. Additionally, most collectors maintain adequate to excellent holding facilities. There have been a few recent instances where some Florida area collectors have been convicted of wildlife infractions. A Google search for “Operation Rock Bottom” may help identify these “bad actors”. Aquarium fish collection in Hawaii has been restricted as of 2020.

Japan – This country is a good source for their endemic tropical and temperate species, as well as when this country acts as an importer and re-exporter of fish from other locations. Due to Japan’s high costs and logistics for shipping, animals from this country command a premium price in the west.

Australia – Animals from this region are collected under special license, and are typically handled quite well. Since this is a first world country, and shipping to other regions is costly, animals from this region imported into the United States and Europe are quite expensive. There is some concern in that since Australia takes its environmental issues very seriously, and only allows limited permits, it is unknown if marine aquarium collections will be allowed going forward.

Sri Lanka – Rumor has it that cyanide is not routinely used to collect fish in this region. However, Rodney Jonklaas, a well-known collector in the region back in the 1960’s mentions fish being collected “with cyanide gas”. He then went on to be a premier net fish collector (but would still use unknown “soporifics” for collecting some fish such as firefish and other small cryptic species. In addition, not all exporters have good quality holding systems, and some Sri Lankan exporters import fish from other regions for subsequent resale, and the relative sustainability of those fish is unknown. Recent serious issues with the economy of this country (circa 2022) may lead to quality issues going forward.

East Africa/Maldives – Generally, this region produces very high-quality animals. One example is the common cleaner wrasse. From most Indo-Pacific sources, this species fares poorly in aquariums, but those from this region are quite hardy. As with Sri Lanka, exporters in this region may import fish (usually Red Sea species) from other regions that have unknown sustainability.

Fiji – Only a few exporters operate in this country, and their animals are similar in high quality as those from Hawaii. In 2018, Fiji banned the export of corals and live rock from their country. The few exporters here must now contend with shipping only fishes, which definitely impacts their bottom line.

Marshall Islands – Most fish collected from this region are subsequently exported and re-sold by Hawaiian dealers. The only real concern is possible over-collection of flame angelfish and other high-value, less common species.

Papua New Guinea – Exports from this region of Oceania have been tried from time to time over the past decade. In late 2021, a new exporter has begun shipping from this region to the Philippines, for re-export to other countries. This exporter strives to be sustainable and uses net collecting techniques.

Areas of unknown sustainability

Brazil – Very little information is available regarding marine fish collected from this region, but the presence of the Brazilian royal gramma in the pet trade indicates that marine fish from this region do enter the pet trade. Freshwater fishes from this country seem to be well-regulated, including restrictions on the export of rare species. However, it is suspected that some Brazilian freshwater fishes are collected, and then smuggled into neighboring countries for re-export, circumventing the laws that Brazil has in place to protect them.

Costa Rica – This region is a bit of an enigma. Having coasts on both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, suppliers may offer fish from both regions. Their collection methods and sustainability are unknown.

Dominican Republic – Sharing an island with Haiti (known to be unsustainable for marine fish collections) this country has unknown sustainability.

Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Sudan and Yemen – Exports made from these countries may be sustainable, but much is unknown about these exporters. Additionally, political and governmental instability have tended to open and close these exporters over the years.

Mexico – It is thought that this country has halted all exports of live marine fish (i.e., they are not issuing collecting permits). However, the presence of Passer angelfish, blue spotted jawfish and juvenile Garibaldi in the aquarium trade seems to bring that into question. These fish may be originating from Costa Rica though. One well-known collector in Mexico was convicted in 2011 of illegally collecting Clipperton Angelfish (Holocanthus limbaughi) and subsequently reselling them as “Blue Passer Angelfish”. This incident may have then led to the closure of marine fish collection in Mexico.

New Caledonia – Only one or perhaps two collectors operate in this region, with their primary export being the Conspicuous angelfish, Chaetodontoplus conspicillatus. Other species collected in this region can generally be acquired at less expense from other regions. The extensive travel time from this region adds to the stress these animals undergo in shipping to the end consumers.

Oman – Recently opened to some marine fish collection (2022), sustainability is unknown at the present time. Initial reports are that the quality of these fish is very good.

Saudi Arabia – Rumors surface from time to time, that fishes from this Red Sea collecting region are less sturdy than those from other areas.

Ghana – From time to time, shipments of marine fish originate from this country. The relative hardiness of these fish indicates that cyanide is not being used. However, there are some scammers at work in this region who will take your money and never send any fish.

Areas where marine fish collections are known to be less sustainable

Haiti - Overharvesting of Condylactis anemones is suspected from this country, as well as some dubious transactions involving live rock and mushroom anemones. Transshipped Haitian fish (royal gramma, pygmy angelfish and jawfish) have flooded the US market with cheap, but weak fish for decades. It is not always possible to know which fish are collected in Florida and which were imported from Haiti and then resold as “Florida fish”. One key is the species involved; Pygmy Angelfish and Royal Gramma sold by Florida collectors are simply not collected there, as they are not found in that region. There is also some suspicion that collectors in this country use drugs to capture their fish (most likely quinaldine). One dealer in the United States was convicted of selling Ricordea sp. mushrooms that were reported to have been collected in Haiti, but were actually illegally harvested in Florida waters. He served jail time, but in 2022, he again began to try to market the same species to the public.

Hong Kong - The live food fish markets in Hong Kong are notorious for selling fish collected with cyanide for human consumption. The presumption is that their aquarium fish supplies are likewise compromised.

Philippines - The first country to use cyanide to collect marine aquarium fish, dating back to the early 1960’s, creating a culture of cheap, but poor-quality fish. In the 1970’s the high mortality rate of fish from this region contributed to a high turnover of home marine aquarists. In one informal industry poll, the average time a person spent in the marine aquarium hobby was just nine months. While there have been some recent improvements to the quality of fish from this country, much of what is exported is still not sustainable; Hepatus tangs, colored carpet anemones and other species have become more rarely exported from the region, pointing to overharvesting. In addition, there are still a number of “grade B” fish originating from this country that are handled poorly, and most likely still collected with cyanide. These lower quality fish are often smaller in size, are thin and have poor health – but they are cheap. In the past few years, a few exporters have begun to try to clean up the export trade in the Philippines.

Vietnam - A relative newcomer to the marine aquarium trade, there have been some concerns about the quality of fish from this region, especially with penned raised seahorses. Rumors indicate that cyanide use may also be prevalent. The secretariat for CITES has identified that this country is unsustainably supplying seahorses to the trade, mostly as dried animals used in TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).

Indonesia- From the late 1970’s to the early 1980’s, Indonesia was seen as a better option than acquiring cyanide-collected fish from the Philippines. Starting around 1982, cyanide collection suddenly became more common in this country, and the quality of their exported fish quickly dropped. A telling tale was seen in 1981, when an importer noticed a drop in price for adult Emperor angelfish. When he asked his exporter why, he was told; “We now catch batman with magic”. “Batman” referred to the head mask of that species, and “magic” was evidently sodium cyanide. More recently, rumors arose that CITES export documents for live corals could be purchased from the government, with no regard to quotas. In 2018, Indonesia halted the export of all stony corals in response to these abuses. That restriction was later lifted, but their history of problems remains.

Singapore - Exporters in this area serve mainly as forwarding agents for fish collected in other regions. The extra handling reduces their thriftiness, and the origins of the fish may include those from known cyanide collection areas. There are a few species collected locally; some clownfish, a few butterflyfish and tasseled filefish. These tend to be sturdier than the non-local fish offered by these exporters.

Solomon Islands - Rumors have it that at least some collectors in this region use cyanide. In 2016, the CITES secretariat has identified that this country is unsustainably harvesting Tridacna clams (most likely for the food trade). This region does seem to have sustainable coral propagation suppliers.

Taiwan - Exporters here often import fish from many other, undocumented regions. Additionally, many fish originating here are collected at a very large size and do not adapt well to captivity, while other smaller animals of the same species from different sources fare better.

Of course, aquarists should always beware of acquiring any fish that have an unknown history; as they then have no basis for knowing how healthy the fish are, or where they originated from.
About author
Jay Hemdal
Jay Hemdal has kept aquarium fish since he was four. He set up his first marine aquarium in 1968 when he was nine years old. He later worked part time for many years at various local retail pet stores and fish wholesale companies while he was living at home and then during college. After graduating from college with a degree in aquatic biology, he managed the aquarium department of a large retail pet store for five years until 1985, when he was hired as an aquarist/diver (and later department manager) for a large public aquarium. In 1989, he accepted the position of curator of fishes and invertebrates for another public aquarium, where he remains today. Jay has written over 200 articles and papers as well as seven books since 1981.

Jay has also written for the following publications.

Advanced Aquarist Magazine
Aquarium Fish International
Aquarium Frontiers
Comparative Parasitology
Drum and Croaker
Freshwater and Marine Aquarium
International Zoo Yearbook
Journal of Aquariculture and Aquatic Sciences
North American Journal of Aquaculture
Progressive Fish-Culturist
Today's Aquarist
Tropical Fish Hobbyist
Zoo Biology

Latest reviews

Pros: Very informative article
Thank you for this informative article. It really makes me cringe knowing how some of these poor fish are collected. Makes me think twice about where I will buy from in the future.
Pros: Very good for newcomers like myself
Very good info, been looking into this lately
Pros: Very detailed and informative!
This is a very informative article detailing research from many different popular regions. I wish there were more citations so I could further research this, but that would make this a book and not an article. I’m very thankful for the information and will definitely take note of where my critters come from!
Pros: Well organized and important source
This is an often overlooked but important part of fish keeping that I wish I knew and cared about earlier as it may have saved me some money and heartache.
With more people knowing this hopefully this hobby can stop supporting questionable collection techniques and improve the hobby immensely.

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Jay Hemdal
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