Press Releases - September 2003 - From Cauliflower Corals to Clown Fish - 30 Sep 2003 - United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
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From Cauliflower Corals to Clown Fish - 30 Sep 2003

Nairobi/London, 30 September 2003 - Over 20 million tropical fish, including 1471 species ranging from the sapphire devil to the copperhead butterflyfish, are being harvested annually to supply the booming marine aquarium trade in Europe and the United States, according to the most comprehensive global survey ever undertaken.

A further nine to 10 million animals, including molluscs, shrimps and anemones and involving some 500 species, are also being traded to supply tanks in homes, public aquaria and dentists’ surgeries.

Up to 12 million stony corals are being harvested, transported and sold annually estimates the report, released today by the United Nations Environment Programme’s World Conservation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC).

“From Ocean to Aquarium: The Global Trade in Marine Ornamentals” says that the value of aquarium creatures in trade is worth between $200 to $330 million annually. The report comes in advance of the UK launch of the Disney blockbuster, ‘Finding Nemo’, which has already taken the United States by storm.

The film tells the trials and tribulations of a clown anemonefish, which along with the beautiful blue-green damselfish, tops the list as the most traded tropical fish.

In the new report, Southeast Asia is shown to be the main source of the trade, but ornamental marine species are increasingly being taken from several island nations in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Most of the demand comes from the United States, Europe and to a lesser extent Japan.

“For the first time we have an accurate estimate of the number of fish, corals and other animals being taken from coral reefs and brought to public aquariums and fish tanks in homes across Europe and the USA,” said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director.

“Collecting tropical fish brings pleasure to millions. It also fuels an important, and mostly legitimate, industry,” Toepfer continued. “This valuable new data should enable more informed and effective decision making at the policy, industry and consumer level. The global trade in marine species on the one hand poses a significant risk to valuable ecosystems like coral reefs, but on the other has great potential as a source of desperately needed income for local fishing communities.”

He added, “As a result it represents another important weapon in the war against poverty and in helping to meet not only the United Nations’s Millennium Development Goals but also the World Summit on Sustainable Development’s Plan of Implementation”.

Unlike freshwater aquarium species, where 90 per cent of fish species are currently farmed, the great majority of marine aquariums are stocked from wild caught species. This activity, if not carried out in an appropriate manner, can cause irreversible damage to coral reefs.

“A minority of fishermen, in countries such as Indonesia, use sodium cyanide to capture fish., says Colette Wabnitz, one of the report’s authors. “An almost lethal dose of the poison is squirted into the coral reef where fish shelter. It stuns the fish to allow capture and export, but can also kill coral and other species. The fish may survive the export process but usually die of liver failure soon after being purchased.”

Coral reefs, the rainforests of the seas, are facing an increasing plethora of threats from pollution and sedimentation to coral bleaching, overfishing and tourism. The reefs of Southeast Asia are particularly at risk and it is therefore important that aquarium species’ collection does not further compound these problems.

Moving from the risks, the new report from UNEP-WCMC also highlights the economic value (or opportunities) presented by a well-managed aquarium marine trade.

According to Mark Collins, UNEP-WCMC Director, “If managed properly, the aquarium industry could support long-term conservation and sustainable use of coral reefs in regions where other options for generating revenue are limited. Some collection techniques have minimal impact on coral and the industry as a whole is of relatively low volume yet of very high value.”

On this theme, From Ocean to Aquarium, highlights some case studies. It says that in year 2000, 1kg of aquarium fish from the Maldives was valued at almost US$500, whereas 1kg of reef fish harvested for food was worth only US$6. Similarly, live coral trade is worth about US$7,000 per tonne whereas harvested coral for the production of limestone yields only about US$60 per tonne.

In another example, Sri Lanka earns about US$ 5.6 million per year by exporting reef fish to around 52 countries. The report estimates that 50,000 people in the country are directly involved in the export of marine ornamentals, providing jobs in rural low-income coastal areas and a strong incentive to maintain fish stocks and reef environments in good condition.

The report recommends the continued development and wider application of third-party certification schemes that empower consumer choice. Also, at the source country level, the implementation of appropriate quotas, catch size limits, the designation of marine reserves and greater use of permits. Finally, in order to take some of the pressure off wild stocks and to avoid removing livelihoods from local communities, there is a call for greater local farming of commonly traded species.

Data for the new report has largely come from the Global Marine Aquarium Database, a joint collaborative effort between UNEP-WCMC, the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) and members of various aquarium trade associations.

“Fish certified by the Marine Aquarium Council are healthier and have better survival chances because they are collected, handled and transported according to internationally approved best practice standards,” says Ed Green another author of the report. “We encourage responsible traders to sign up to the MAC certification scheme and for the public to only buy from reputable dealers. Only by such means can we ensure a trade, from reef to retail, that is sustainable and beneficial for all.”

Copies of the report are available from the UNEP web site at or at:

For more information please contact: Robert Bisset, UNEP Spokesperson for Europe on Tel: 33 1 44377613, Mobile: 33 6 22725842, E-mail: Eric Falt, Spokesperson/Director of UNEP's Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 20 623292, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 682656, E-mail: or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 20 623084, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, E-mail:

For more information from UNEP-WCMC, contact Will Rogowski, Head of Marketing & Communications, Tel: +44 (0) 1223 277314, Email: or Rachel Holdsworth/Gayle Nicol, tel 01954 202789,

Note to Editors

From Ocean to Aquarium is based in part on the Global Marine Aquarium Database (GMAD), which was developed in partnership with the Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) to promote sustainable trade. The database contains more than 100,000 records from global aquarium import and export companies. It is accessible online at

MAC—an international not-for-profit organization dedicated to protecting tropical marine fish and coral reefs—has designed the first-ever marine-life certification system which enables consumers to select retailers who sell organisms that complies with internationally approved environmental and quality standards … from reef to retail.

Recently, Sierviskwekerij Waterweelde B.V., an import facility in The Hague, became the first company in Europe to be MAC Certified. Other MAC Certified companies are located in Canada, the Philippines and the United States. A complete, updated list is posted at

UNEP News Release 2003/53


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