If we want to continue to keep fish as pets, it is vital that the ornamental fish industry takes appropriate action and starts considering the planet.
Keeping fish in aquariums only really started in the 1900s. This means we have only had a century to learn how to keep fish as pets. And only recently did we develop more knowledge of fish as a species, and become aware of fish welfare. However, fish are still kept in great numbers in little aquariums with filters that are too small. We have already developed many good technical tools to keep fish alive and healthy, but lack of knowledge makes us susceptible for attacks by animal activists around the world.
The ethics of keeping fish as pets is still a sensitive and often cultural issue. Take for example fish that have been injected (‘painted’) with coloured dyes, or fish that are bred and sold with deformed balloon bodies or parrot-face heads. Genetically modified (GM) fish play an important role in DNA studies and are now common in many countries (except in the EU). Many hobbyists around the world call them ‘Frankenstein fish’ because of their unnatural colours, and regard them as a potential risk.
All these developments put the industry in a bad light. Many countries now have specific regulations about which fish can be imported or be kept in aquariums, as some species may be endangered, invasive, venomous, become too big, etc. If we want to continue to keep fish as pets, we will have to respect regulations, negotiate with animal rights groups and explore how we can be pro-active in selecting what we trade.
Many natural habitats are being destroyed by industries other than the ornamental fish industry (one third of freshwater fish populations have disappeared). Still, the industry is easily blamed for ‘emptying the waters’ and its perceived dependence on ‘fragile live fish’. Although the industry has caused very little damage, we will still have to work towards sustainable use of natural resources and, in certain cases, help to restore fish populations through specific fish-breeding projects. In the near future, more projects will start up in countries like Indonesia, India, Brazil and Zimbabwe. Anyone involved in catching fish in the wild will have to comply with specific regulations and our industry should support such projects.
Our industry plays a role in combatting climate change by using advanced technologies: recycling water, low-energy lamps and pumps, thermal exchange of used aquarium water, recycling all packing materials, etc. In many countries, due to their geographical location, it is not (or hardly) possible to get enough energy from solar panels or windmills. These countries depend mostly on fossil fuels, which unfortunately cause extensive environmental pollution. The use of biofuels is another option but this takes too much land and has no climate benefits.
In my opinion (and in the opinion of many other scientists), it is time for us to invest in small ‘nuclear fission reactors’ in areas with dense populations and a lack of good natural resources in order to reduce our ecological footprint. These are safe and cheap to use and would help to reduce our stockpile of nuclear waste. Unfortunately, due to negative press coverage and political abuse, investment in nuclear plants has been delayed in many countries (especially in Germany and Sweden). Other countries – those that are starting to play an important role in the world economy, like China, India and Russia – are investing in modern, safe nuclear plants and are going to out-compete many western countries with very low-cost energy and a small ecological footprint. The ornamental fish industry should consider its options regarding advanced energy-saving methods.
Impact on land and fresh water
Mankind has over-exploited the planet. Deforestation is one lesson we can learn if we are to plan better in the future. The ornamental fish industry collects wild fish and is investing in stopping deforestation, since land clearance harms fish populations. Our industry has contributed to the protection of several natural areas. According to WWF South America, endemic fishing villages are now regarded as the best guardians of nature. In the near future, we will have to take every opportunity to promote and support collecting fish in the wild, but this can only be done by investing in the sustainable use of natural resources.
We know that access to fresh water will become more critical. To reduce our footprint, we could use the waste fresh water from fish farms to grow vegetables (as is happening in Israel, for example).
Breeding marine fish on a tropical coastline (in tanks or cages) is much more recommendable than breeding inland somewhere in a western country. In general, the breeding of fish, plants, shrimps and corals should be encouraged in tropical countries, where there is less need of electricity (no heating, more daylight) and more potential use of natural water. Some people claim that transporting ornamental fish by air is responsible for a large part of the fish industry’s ecological footprint. However, fish are mostly small cargo and are often loaded with passenger goods or other cargo. Furthermore, coral farming in the ocean also reduces the size of our ecological footprint, as it consumes CO2 and offers job opportunities and income to developing countries.
When we keep ornamental fish, we have to use products to maintain water quality, prevent the spread of diseases, control disease outbreaks, etc. Many countries have regulations to control waste management and several companies have had to make large investments to comply with these regulations. The sale of certain medications, like those containing copper, is forbidden since these unwanted substances may pollute the environment through waste water. Antibiotics can be used only under strict control (sometimes only on prescription) and more rules and regulations are to be expected. We should start using other tools to keep our fish healthy. Here the industry has taken big steps in the right direction with the use of probiotics and immunity stimulants.
The future of the ornamental fish industry is in our hands. To avoid any unexpected or unacceptable regulations we will have to be pro-active. I recommend that every entrepreneur in the fish industry stays in close contact with their local authorities. Most authorities lack correct information about our industry and therefore make uninformed decisions. It is up to us to provide the correct information, which we otherwise tend to keep to ourselves. Good management and respect for the many issues the industry faces will help us succeed.
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