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October 6, 2016

Pet Age published the announcement of the first successful aquaculture of Pacific blue tangs, more commonly known as the “Dory fish.” The species, characterized by its blue body with marks of black and yellow, has been popularized by Disney’s “Finding Nemo,” which featured a Pacific blue tang main character named—you guessed it—Dory. That lionization gained new resurgence with the release of the movie’s sequel, “Finding Dory,” earlier this year.

However, though the successful captive breeding of the so-called “Dory fish” may be an exciting yet relatively inconsequential tidbit for movie fans, pet industry players and conservationists alike understand the importance of such a development.

“The breakthrough means aquarium hobbyists and marine life exhibits may soon have a source for blue tangs that doesn’t rely on captured wild fish,” read a press release from the University of Florida Aquaculture Laboratory, which was a partner in the breeding project. That facility, along with Riding Ride Conservation and the SeaWorld-Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, worked together to successfully cultivate the brood of blue tangs.

A Turn to the Alternative
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), aquaculture is the “breeding, rearing and harvesting of animals and plants in all types of water environments… used for producing seafood for human consumption; enhancing wild fish, shellfish and plant stocks for harvest; restoring threatened and endangered aquatic species; rebuilding ecologically-important shellfish habitat; producing nutritional and industrial compounds; and providing fish for aquariums.”

The United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization has reported a downturn in the production of capture fisheries. Though these reports refer to fish supplies for human consumption, this stagnation also affects the availability of fish and other aquatic organisms used for aquamarine displays and the pet industry. As global populations continue to increase, there simply isn’t enough fish to fulfill our needs. And according to NOAA, “aquaculture is one of the most resource-efficient ways to produce protein.”

While much of government research on aquaculture focuses on fish supplies that will eventually end up in our groceries and restaurants, the issue of sustainability exists for the pet industry as well. Aquaculture is an alternative to current harvesting practices, in which species are removed from the wild in the vast majority of cases.

According to Rising Tide Conservation (a non-profit organization involved in the blue tang project, along with many similar initiatives), only 10-15 percent of commercially available marine aquarium fish are captive-bred, while the vast majority are wild-caught. Wild-caught marine animals are often difficult to trace to their origin, making it difficult to determine whether or not they were caught using sustainable fishing methods.

The Importance of Sustainability
Besides the various socioeconomic issues that overexploitation of our oceans may cause, such practices severely affect the health of the world’s coral reefs. Overexploitation is named by Rising Tide Conservation as one of the most common threats to the world’s coral reefs, along with ocean acidification, warming ocean temperatures, coral bleaching and pollution. According to the State Museum of Queensland, Australia, the removal of certain species from their natural environment endangers the biodiversity of that ecosystem, very often coral reefs. Organizations such as Rising Tide Conservation and the Coral Restoration Foundation list the preservation of coral reefs as their primary mission.

For purposes of research, coral reefs also provide a “clear, scientifically-testable record of climate events over the past million years or so,” according to the State Museum of Queensland. Coral reefs provide humans with natural resources, spur essential natural processes such as the creation of soil and the breakdown of pollutants, and yield activities such as those in National Parks and World Heritage areas.

A document on Biodiscovery and the Great Barrier Reef compiled by the State Museum of Queensland stated that coral reefs:

• Protect coastlines from damaging effects of wave action and tropical storms
• Provide habitats and shelter for many marine organisms
• Are the source of nitrogen and other essential nutrients for marine food chains
• Assist in carbon and nitrogen fixing
• Help with nutrient recycling

Conservationists have asserted that, in many regions, coral reefs are in a state of distress. On their website, the Coral Restoration Foundation posits that 98 percent of the staghorn and elkhorn coral of the Florida Keys and Caribbean have been destroyed since the 1970s and 80s. These species once dominated those regions as reef-builders, protecting coastal areas and providing vital habitat for fish and other life in the waters.

Voices of the Pet Industry
Of course, aquaculture and its importance are not entirely new to the pet industry. Earlier this year, the Pet Leadership Council (PLC) announced it would be supporting efforts to popularize responsible fish keeping ahead of the “Finding Dory” movie, which was expected to spur interest in the aquatics hobby.

“With the release of ‘Finding Dory’ boosting interest in fish keeping, we want people to know that the pet industry is committed to offering fish and marine life that are produced through aquaculture or collected through safe and sustainable practices that include careful attention to the sustainability of both the aquatic life and the marine and aquatic environments where they live,” said Bob Vetere, Chairman of the PLC.

The PLC, comprised of pet industry leaders, advocates, veterinarians and scholars, launched www.happyhealthyfish.pet, a website aimed to educate consumers on proper care of pet fish, and sustainability and conservation efforts already underway. The organization pledged its support of several core principles, including the promotion and advancement of aquaculture efforts for captive breeding of all marine life, the establishment of standards for responsible and sustainable collection and handling of marine life, the education of consumers on responsible fish keeping and the celebration of educational and health benefits associated with fish keeping.

Also accepting the PLC’s endorsement was Rising Tide Conservation.

“Without the support of the pet industry, the advances of Rising Tide in marine aquaculture would not be possible,” said Dr. Judy St. Leger, Director of Rising Tide Conservation. “We continue to develop new techniques in aquaculture to support fish and coral reefs worldwide.”

On the other hand, sustainability within the pet industry and responsible aquaculture is about much more than simply finding alternatives to wild-capture methods. Once fish have been procured, it is essential for aquarists—whether they be consumers or retailers—to act responsibly, caring for and, in the event it becomes necessary, relocating the fish in a compassionate and eco-friendly manner.

Through its Habitattitude program, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) released a list of responsibilities for industry members to help in sustainability and conservation efforts. The national initiative was developed by PIJAC with the help of the Aquatic Nuisance Species (ANS) Task Force, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Sea Grant and NOAA:

• To care for the species well-being and provide a suitable environment.
• To maintain and take the appropriate steps to keep the species in our privately-owned enclosures contained.
• To properly relocate these species, fish or plants, if they are not native to our aquatic system.
• To follow the laws of your state regarding the acquisition, collection, possession, purchase, sale, release and transfer of ownership of these non-native plant and fish species. If you have acquired an undesirable, nonnative aquatic plant or fish species for your aquarium or water garden, it is important not to release these plants or fish into the environment including not flushing them into the city sewer system.

Habitattitude encourages you to choose one of these alternatives:

• Contact the store where the plant or fish was purchased for proper handling advice or possible return.
• Give or trade with another aquarist, pond owner, or water gardener.
• Donate to a local aquarium society, school, or aquatic business.
• Seal aquatic plants in plastic bags and dispose in trash.
• Contact a veterinarian specializing in exotics for guidance on humane disposal of fish.

Finding the Key
In the case of the blue tangs, the project was assembled six years prior to its completion and was comprised of scientists from the University of Florida Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory, the UF Indian River Research and Education Center and the Oceanic Institute of Hawaii Pacific University. Newly hatched blue tang larvae were placed in a tank for three days to absorb their yolk. At this point, the newborns were just over one millimeter long and transparent with no eyes or mouth.

“During that first three days, the Pacific blue tangs develop eyes and a mouth,” said Craig Watson, Director of the UF Tropical Aquaculture Laboratory. “If the food for the parents isn’t just right, the yolk won’t be enough or of the right consistency to carry the larvae through. Water quality, including temperature, is critical, and if anything goes wrong they can be dead in hours.”

The project was lauded as a major victory for sustainability and aquaculture research. As such initiatives continue to gain traction, it is becoming clear that the current of the aquatics category is flowing in the direction of sustainability.

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