Ah, this business again.
First, there is a problem with the supply chain. The stereotypical one goes from collector to small island to major depot, thru major airports to LA wholesalers, and from there to the LFS. The potential for death in all of this is enormous. People have been saying that big wholesalers like Quality Marine - despite its claimed efforts to improve the supply chain - have more and more diseased fish. I would like to have a much more direct collector-to-consumer relationship, that is I would like to purchsae from the collector if at all possible. This is why I generally highly recommend KP Aquatics, an excellent Florida collector. I would pay good money for similar services from a collector in the East Pacific.
Second, buying fish that have been cyanided, etc. is 100% wrong. Further, there should be a very careful reckoning of what fish are suitable for aquarium use, and which ones are not due to diet, etc. This is not new; John Tullock's book "The Natural Reef Aquarium" had a whole chapter on this ("net-caught or nothing"), which unfortunately is not remotely dated. :(
All that being said, this kind of anti-aquarium argument is ultimately silly. Not to even hit the points it raises, which have been refuted above:
- the number of species purchased for the aquarium hobby is a very small percentage of the total fish on a given coral reef (to say nothing of the broader ocean). And as we know, careful coral collection is 100% sustainable. (though of course cutting huge swaths of stuff willy nilly and throwing it in bags without any care for its survival is not)
- aquarium collection is very low in things that "harm" a coral reef - again, unless it's done poorly with no regard for sustainability). Local pollution, damage from careless boating or non-aquarium fishing, warming, even using live rock for local buildings is far more "dangerous" than aquarium collecting. (I'll never forget a picture I saw from some south pacific nation where they were hauling a giant boulder- what we'd call "premium live rock" - out of the ocean to be used as builing material.
[very uncommon species like the Banggai cardinal are an exception: at least last I heard, it was rapidly overfished to the point of being rare in its native waters. But then, either intentionally or IMO more likely just as a byproduct of fishermen throwing out marginal specimens that recover, it was introduced into areas it's not native to and is doing well.]
- which gets to another point: collection of coral reef fish for local human consumption kills way more reef fish that aquarium collecting. I am told that the export of live reef fish and inverts for dinner tables in East Asia (i.e. China - and mind you I am Chinese) far outweighs export of live fish for aquaria. (and if one banned the export of life reef fish for East Asian consumption, it would, like drugs, cause the price of smuggled food fishes to rise astronomically. And besides, I know of no coral reef country that's banned export of live reef animals to China for food, as much as some of them posture about aquarium fish, because that trade is larger and is worth much more money than aquarium fish)
- ORA, Sustainable aquatics, etc. have AFAIK basically crowded out the market for wild collected clownfish. There are numerous small Australian coral farms for apparently the local reef market, and coral farms in other countries supply a good amount of US coral imports. Of course, not every fish is at comparable levels of aquarium demand/suitability, so I think we will never be at the point where it's reasonable to captive grown every single species. (I'd also say that some species - e.g. lawnmower blennies - are not nearly as common captive bred as I would like). But I think it's practical to get maybe 66% of the way there, now. (and there are a lot of wild caught species that IMO should be caught in much smaller numbers because they're not anywhere near as suitable in an aquarium as their rampant easy availability suggests they should be -.e.g Yellow Tangs)
- Finally, the ethics thing is just a rabbit hole. Ultimately, a store must treat these animals (as well as parrot, parakeets, even dogs and cats) as livestock. And before one hem-and-haws about that, I would ask why would one hold a dog owner to task, while ignoring the conditions of farm animals? For an aquatic parallel, where does the cut off come - why is it acceptable that 100% of oysters harvested in the chesapeake bay die within a few days of harvest and the industry has a waste percentage of (made up number) 10%, but that, say, 10% of yellow tangs don't survive the collector-to-Ifs process? Why is it acceptable for me to kill thousands of newborn brine shrimp at fish feeding time, while PETA and Sea Shepherd laments the loss of any fish in an aquarium?
Also, I don't buy the "fish would be happier in the sea" argument. Assuming a (subjectively) decent quality of sustenance, space, habitat can be provided for the fish, I think anything is fair game. Clownfish in the wild do not stray far from their host anemones because they are not suitable as general reef fish. Royal grammas do not grow that big and stay IVO a given cave. Similar with lawnmower blennies. The criteria need to be changed for each species. (this is why I'm a member of the tang police). Finally, each fish produces 1000s of fry over its lifetime; if you have much more than 3 of those fry survive to reproduce, the species will take over the reef. I don't see why, when 1000s of fish die in the wild before having the chance to reproduce, one would make a big deal of a paltry percentage of those that end up in aquaria.
Now, I can't abide sterotypical factory farming of pigs, and even though they of course in the end they are eaten anyway, I pay a premium for "non factory farmed organic", etc. meat when at all possible. I am completely against pet abuse and am fine with strict laws against abusers - I can't abide that someone has done the horrible things you'd see if you googled "cat abuse" to something as sweet as my Harriet. Likewise, I check the source of my fish and corals as much as I can to ensure they're from decent suppliers, and I think carefully if/how my aquarium can reasonably allow something like their wild habits.