PIJAC Releases Response to Nat Geo Betta Article

November 28, 2018

Press release: Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council

By Bob Likins, VP of Government Affairs for PIJAC

On Oct. 30, National Geographic posted an article to their website with the title “Betta fish often mistreated in pet industry, evidence suggests.”

This piece included several misrepresentations of the hobby and the trade, so the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) joined with the Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association (OATA), the European Pet Association (EPA), and Ornamental Fish International (OFI) to submit a reply seeking clarifications and corrections. The edits they made following receipt of our expressed concerns do little to rectify the situation, so we are reprinting it here for your consideration:

While we as leaders in the responsible pet trade share the concern for animal welfare expressed in Kristin Hugo’s recent piece on betta fish and encourage everyone who owns or cares for animals to consistently monitor their living conditions, we are concerned by the numerous misrepresentations in the piece which paint an inaccurate and misleading picture of the way the responsible pet trade treats bettas.

We as organizations do not typically respond to releases from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) because they are generally sensationalized and either staged or highly edited. However, the fact that a respected publication such as National Geographic has chosen to use one of their claimed “exposes” as the basis for an article compels us to do so in this case.

Let’s begin with the article’s title: “Betta fish often mistreated in pet industry, evidence suggests.” The article never validates this claim. When the author contacted Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) just prior to publication, her concern was with the shipping conditions as described by PETA. Contrary to the article’s statement that PIJAC did not provide comment, they pointed out that the people responding to PETA’s YouTube video had already refuted PETA’s assertions by describing the physiology of the betta fish and further informed her that they had circulated her questions to their aquatic experts. The focus then apparently changed almost exclusively to how people keep betta fish, not how the industry treats them, and the article was published a few hours later. What discussion there is about the pet industry actually undermines the headline, as it points out that the stores cited stock fish in a way that minimizes their time in the store and that the corporate HQ is responsive to concerns about animal welfare.

The Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association (OATA) was contacted outside office hours and not given time to respond prior to the article’s publication.

The author also routinely misinterprets what others have written throughout the article. She states that “They do not naturally live in tiny puddles in the wild, despite rumors” and links to an article that actually says “[s]ince they can live in virtual puddles in their natural habitat, they can survive in small, oxygen-deprived environments.”  Bettas often live in small streams that will dry up into a series of puddles during the dry season. This is why they have adapted their unique method of breathing and highly developed ability to jump (to get from one puddle to the next).

A bolder misinterpretation of existing research begins a paragraph with “And, yes, fish are capable of being happy and unhappy.” Nothing in the paper that she cites, however, concludes that fish are capable of being happy or unhappy; the subject of the paper is whether or not fish feel pain. While this is an interesting subject, and one in which she would be better served by citing the work of D.Phil. Victoria Braithwaite, it has nothing to do with keeping a betta (or any other) fish in an aquarium, and her speculative conclusion is not supported by the documentation she provides.

Finally, the author’s conclusion, or “Sourcing” section, is almost completely irrelevant to this article. She brings up cyanide use, damage to the coral reefs, breeding practices, traceability, animal handling, destructive fishing methods, overexploitation and introducing non-native species to an area. While all of these may be causes for concern, few of them apply to betta fish and none of them are discussed, or even explained, in the article.

PIJAC finds both the misrepresentations in the article and National Geographic’s unwillingness to substantively correct them to be irresponsible. Thorough investigative reporting and sound science are essential to continuing to improve all aspects of animal welfare and we actively support both.

Disappointingly, this situation mirrors one two years ago, when National Geographic published an article on the illegal use of cyanide by unscrupulous fishers, a practice decried by the responsible aquatics community. PIJAC provided them with evidence from Dr. Andy Rhyne proving that supporting data in the piece was fraudulent. Not only did they take insufficient action to correct the article at the time, they continue to spread bad information to this day by referring back to that unrelated article in this betta piece.

National Geographic’s limited corrective action and its posture toward the marine ornamentals trade leave a lot to be desired. PIJAC will continue to work with OATA, EPA and OFI, and other organizations like them, to advocate for an accurate portrayal of the international aquatics community. We encourage anyone interested in learning more about, or getting involved in, this issue to contact [email protected]

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