Scientists and marine life collectors in the Florida Keys are debating the sustainability of harvesting living coral and reef invertebrates for use in America’s estimated 700,000 saltwater home aquariums, the New York Times reports. As the technology and technique involved in building saltwater aquariums has evolved, so too have collectors’ tastes, with aquarium hobbyists seeking to create their own miniature oceans. The desire to assemble complete, small-scale reef ecosystems has driven demand for coral and “living” rock, as well as for invertebrate grazers and herbivores such as anemones, shrimp, sea urchins, crabs and snails.

The demand for reef invertebrates is especially high because they naturally serve a cleaning and pest-control role, but scientists, who have long warned of the ecological impact of the live coral trade, are strongly cautioning against overharvesting these creatures, many of which are supplied by a Florida fishery composed of about 165 licensed collectors.

Marine biologist Dr. Andrew Rhyne of Roger Williams University and the New England Aquarium has studied the Florida invertebrate fishery, and worries that collectors may be coming dangerously close to overharvesting certain species. If a species is pushed over the edge and its numbers severely decline, there can be a domino effect throughout the ecosystem, warns Rhyne. For example, without invertebrate grazers and herbivores, a reef can become overrun with algae.

While many scientists agree with Rhyne, there are some who insist that the Florida fishery is sustainable. Jessica McCawley, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, helped update the regulations for the fishery last year. She disagrees that the fishery is threatened and maintains that the area’s marine collectors are “very concerned about the environment and the sustainability of the fishery.” Meanwhile, the collectors argue that they have more familiarity and better understanding of the regular cycles of bust and boom that these invertebrates go through — something they claim scientists lack.

While Rhyne concedes that some collectors are aware of and sensitive to the dangers of overfishing, he also warns that there’s been little scientific study of the hundreds of species that are collected in the Florida Keys.

Also of concern is the disposable nature of these animals, which are susceptible to minute changes in water chemistry or temperature, and many of which die in transit. Mortality rates create even higher demand, but collectors argue that even so, the number of creatures harvested every year in Florida is still not a cause for major concern.

While Florida has arguably done a much better job of managing its fishery than many governments overseas, more research is still needed about the hundreds of diverse species being collected to properly protect them and their complex ecosystems. 

Something fishy: Do saltwater aquariums endanger the very ecosystems they replicate?
Marine life collectors are confident their work is sustainable. Some scientists aren't so sure.