“Caribbean coral reefs down eighty percent.”
“Only ten percent of big ocean fish remain.”
“Be worried; be very worried.”

You don’t have to subscribe to the morning paper to be aware of the problems and hurdles facing ocean and reef conservation these days. The major issues in environmental news regularly headline the typical media outlets, from NPR to CNN. Unless you’ve been underneath the proverbial rock, or recently brought out of suspended animation like an Artemia, you’re already well informed and aware of the hot button topics in ocean conservation.

From El Niño to hurricanes to overfishing to global warming to marine debris, our oceans are absorbing an enormous amount of human impacts these days. It isn’t news to learn that what we do every day as regular people and reefkeepers can affect wildlife – both on land and in the water.

The fortunate development, and the real news, is the desire among people to take action and become a part of the solution to these seemingly enormous problems. Reefkeepers have a unique interest in all things salty and aquatic, and a sincere desire to keep wild reefs healthy and intact. But how do we move from wanting to do something for the oceans to actually playing a role in their conservation?

If you were hoping for a discussion of greenhouse gases, global warming or transgenic animals, I’m sorry to disappoint. The heated exchanges that transpire when people attempt to discuss these topics rarely serve to further a cause or determine a solution. We don’t need impassioned opinions. We need information.

What is often overlooked on message boards, news radio broadcasts and the evening news is that anyone can do a number of things to benefit wildlife and wild places. They are things we can do every day, despite our personal positions on global warming, overfishing or the future of coral reefs. The simple fact is that how you live and what you do, no matter what your geographic location, can impact the environment.

As an environmental educator my assignment isn’t to change your opinion or your viewpoint. Instead, I ask you only to consider whether you could make small changes for the oceans, for the reefs and for the future of our hobby. To quote a favorite film, “You can’t change the world, but you can make a dent.” Each of us can make a small dent, and this article is meant to arm you with methods you can use to exert that power.

For each of the following subsections I present an area of concern in ocean conservation and what we, as both everyday folks and reefkeepers, can do toward providing a solution.

Invasive Species

Animals and plants that are introduced in areas outside their home range are usually called non-native, alien, exotic or invasive species. If their introduction is successful, and a breeding population is established, the new additions can upset the ecosystem’s original balance, shifting natural populations of native species. In some cases this shift can completely wipe out the original ecosystem. When Caulerpa colonized parts of the Mediterranean Sea, the native seagrass species Posidonia and Cymodocea were among the first to be overgrown and displaced in large patches. Fish, invertebrates and other interesting animals native to the area, that depended on the seagrass habitat, disappeared from their usual range.

More commonly, an invading species displaces similar animals (or plants) that it can outcompete for food, water or other resources, but does not outright destroy the ecosystem. European starlings and house finches were introduced to the Americas over a century ago, and now most Americans are shocked to learn that they are actually invasive species. Dozens of other examples of such species abound just in our country, including Cuban tree frogs, Australian pine, Brazilian pepper, Kudzu vine, zebra mussels and water hyacinth - and these are from just the state of Florida! Unfortunately, it is hard to find ecosystems in many areas of the world that have not been altered by introduced species. Once a species has colonized a new area, it is extremely difficult and costly to stop its invasion.

While not all released animals live to survive, reproduce and colonize a new area, the risk of introduction, or accidental release, is fairly high in the aquarium hobby. Several invasive species of fish – e.g., Pelvicachromis in Hawaii, snakeheads in Maryland and lionfish in the Western Atlantic – were most likely released from aquariums. We should learn from these previous mistakes and apply a few simple practices to limit the potential releases coming from reef aquariums.

The most obvious of these is simple – never intentionally release an animal or plant into a natural area in your community. Even if the animal in question is technically native to your area, you should not release it into wild areas if it has come in contact with ornamental fish medical treatments (including methylene blue, formalin, praziquantel and all the rest). These chemicals' capacity to wind up in other places in the food chain is high if your ornamental is released. If the released fish winds up in the belly of a tuna, sea trout or shark, the potential for a person to then ingest those medications increases.

Each time we perform a water change we flush millions of bacteria, a few thousand algae spores and plenty of unknown wastes from our aquariums down the drain. If we live very far from a watershed, the potential for any of these to survive the trip and become an invasive species is small. However, most aquarists should treat their wastewater before it enters the water supply to diminish this possibility if they live close to a coast or a freshwater watershed. A small amount of bleach can be added to wastewater and left overnight prior to dumping, to limit this risk.

Any aquarist who owns a refugium, or is in the unfortunate situation of pulling macroalga from his display should also kill the alga before flushing it, rinsing it down the sink drain or throwing it out. Algae do not take freezing well and can be left wrapped up in the freezer before being thrown out. Similarly, though it may seem cruel, aquarists should euthanize unwanted animals rather than release exotic species into natural areas if no other option exists (such options include trading with other aquarists, returning the animal to the shop or donating it to an educational project elsewhere). This topic brings up all sorts of ethical questions about life, death and animals that must be personally addressed. It seems better, however, to sacrifice one animal than to “set it free” and risk the lives of thousands of wild animals and entire ecosystems.

Marine Debris

Marine debris or trash in the oceans is an emerging topic of conservation. While some man-made articles create habitat for fish and corals as artificial reefs, most of them have an extremely negative impact on wildlife.

Sea turtles, like this one seen cruising a reef off of Cozumel in early 2007, are often the victims of ingested marine debris, or are caught as bycatch on long line fishing gear. Photo courtesy of Matt Vincigeurra.

Forgotten fishing gear poses an entanglement threat to sea birds and other sea life. Sea turtles and other large marine animals, such as sharks and whales, frequently ingest floating flotsam and jetsam. The intestinal blockages that result can be lethal. The trouble is not that these animals are sampling junk food on purpose. In most cases the trash resembles a favorite prey item. One of the best examples of such a case is the attraction of sea turtles to plastic bags and popped balloons, which look like jellyfish at the water's surface.

Marine debris doesn't have to be ingested to hurt wildlife.  Young turtles have a habit of crawling through six-pack rings and getting stuck.  The plastic constricts growth over time, producing painful conditions and often early death. This turtle became entangled in a six-pack can ringer for most of its life and died soon after this photo despite living and growing for an extended period of time in this condition. Photos courtesy of Skip Attix.

The decomposition rate of trash in the environment is the root of the problem. Plastic, styrofoam and metals take years, if not decades, to biodegrade. In some cases, the material's lifespan is unknown, making the trash practically immortal. The problem is particularly severe in the Pacific, where there have been reports of trash islands caught between the major oceanic currents.

This albatross was so confused by all the debris at its nesting site that it attempts to incubate a blue plastic ball. Sea birds are also gravely affected by marine debris which entangles and drowns hundreds of them each year. Photo courtesy of Steven Siegel, Marine Photobank.

Fortunately, the solution to marine debris is elegantly simple – don’t litter. Even if you live hundreds of miles inland, trash may still find its way to the oceans through rivers and streams, and impact wild places on its journey seaward. While the concept and practice of recycling are now decades old, it is possible these days to recycle more exotic items than just glass, plastic and cardboard. Many recycling centers now take fluorescent light bulbs, batteries, old cellphones, computers, printers and ink cartridges.

The Surfrider Foundation sponsors the International Coastal Cleanup, which is a perfect opportunity to assist with the cleanup of public and private beaches, but you don’t have to wait for the Surfrider event to make an impact. Organized local events to pick up trash from natural areas, including aquatic ones, are a frequent announcement in many newspapers and local groups (such as those listed at www.theoceanproject.org). And it doesn’t always take an army to pick up trash. The next time you vacation or hit the sand, take a bag along with you and alternate between looking for shells and looking for trash.

Some trash in the ocean environment can function as artificial reefs and even artificial nesting sites. This pink anemonefish has laid her eggs across an abandoned soda can. Photo courtesy of Henry Wolcott, 2005 - Marine Photobank.

Speaking of beaches and wild places, most federal and state parks place recycling containers (or at least trash receptacles) on beaches lining our East and West Coasts. Most coastal states also have programs in place to recycle fishing line, nets, hooks and other gear in PVC collection tubes. If you’re an angler and can’t find a place to recycle or discard your gear, snip the line into short segments that will be less likely to entangle marine animals, in case it finds its way back into the water. Clipping hook barbs before tossing out gear takes effort, but is worth the time.

Downstream Pollution

Some other types of man-made pollution in the oceans are usually less solid than trash, or are in a more organic form than typical marine debris. This pollution, often called runoff or downstream pollution, tends to pour off the land after intense storms, floods or even after everyday gentle rains. It’s often referred to as downstream because its effects are rarely seen where the substances originate, and their full impact is felt along the pathway of the water in the watershed, or in the oceans.

Most types of runoff – including soil, gasoline, oil, pesticides, animal waste and fertilizers – unbalance coastal ecosystems by affecting water quality or by directly smothering coastal habitat such as seagrass beds, mangroves, kelp forests, oyster reefs and coral reefs. Freshwater dumping into coastal ecosystems can also unbalance an area and drive out flora and fauna that depend on higher salinity than the ocean's.

One of the primary sources of runoff pollution in (nearly) every reefkeeper’s life is in the backyard. The next time you are out to mow the grass, weed the garden or feed the plants, keep in mind some of the following recommendations for lessening the amount of runoff that can come from your property.

Grass clippings and other lawn debris may not seem like a type of pollution, but in coastal areas clippings can easily find their way into streams and other waterways. If they do not outright smother submerged and emergent aquatic vegetation, their decay process can rob the water of oxygen and kill fish. Animal waste from Fido and Lassie, or more exotic pets, can do a number on local waterways by contaminating groundwater with parasites, bacteria and – of course – excess nutrients. It’s a good practice to pick up after pets for the health of your family, your pet and aquatic habitats.

If you have large unplanted areas in your lawn, erosion by wind and water can redistribute the soil into coastal ecosystems or local freshwater streams. Most biologists measure the water's turbidity (or clarity) to assess the amount of suspended silt and organic matter that can attenuate (or cut down) light available to underwater vegetation. In marine habitats where turbidity is less than a few feet, seagrasses and macroalga have a very hard time photosynthesizing and surviving. We need clear water to keep coastal habitats, and even reefs, going into the future.

Now, let’s say you plant the bare soil areas of your lawn with grass seed. Now we’re definitely getting somewhere! But, be careful not to overfertilize the new seedlings to keep the lawn exotically green. Slight excesses in fertilizer aren’t obvious because it rarely burns the plants, but it can cause serious problems downstream. Excess fertilizer provides nutrients that drive plankton blooms in the water. Blooms block light to higher plants and algae, and have an effect similar to silt pollution. One of the leading theories for crown of thorn starfish infestations around Australia is that survivorship of planktonic larvae is up due to extra plankton in the water from (drum roll, please!) nutrients from runoff.

Pesticides are also potentially harmful, depending on which chemicals are used and how aquatic wildlife is exposed to them. Generally any man-made chemical should be applied conservatively. Alternatives in the form of organic fertilizer and pesticides can also be used in place of concentrated man-made chemicals.

The other major source of pollution from your home is also sitting outside, this time in the driveway. Cars and trucks should be maintained on a regular basis to prevent leaks of antifreeze, oil and gasoline from winding up on the pavement and (you guessed it) in the environment. Oil, in particular, has a tremendously negative effect on wildlife. Most of us have seen photos of oiled sea birds, sea otters and other wildlife affected by oil spills from grounded tankers in Alaska, California and other places. It takes years, sometimes decades, to restore an oiled habitat to its former state and it may take longer that that for animal populations to recover.

However, the biggest contributor to oil in the oceans isn’t the dramatic spills that attract so much media attention. Most of the oil in waterways and aquatic habitats comes from natural seeps in the ocean floor, spills from pipelines, oil platforms and during maintenance of marine vessels. It also comes from small everyday leaks from cars and trucks and intentional dumping of oil down drains. The largest spill in US waters (so far) was the grounding of the Exxon Valdez in 1989, when 11 million gallons of oil entered remote coastal habitats in Alaska. But according to a 2003 report from the National Research Council, large oil spills account for only 12% of the 1.3 billion tons of oil that end up in the ocean each year. Over a third comes instead from land sources. Large oil spills are horrific and galvanizing, but they are a small part of the problem. It comes down to responsibly disposing of oil (which can be done at most recycling centers) and consciously making an effort to control those little leaks that can add up to gallons of oil over the years. Used oil should never go directly onto the lawn or be poured down the street drain.

Though runoff affects coastal habitats we can control a lot of this kind of pollution and keep it out of the environment. If you want to play a direct role in coastal conservation, and you live in an area where seagrass and mangrove restoration projects are being conducted (many places in Florida, Hawaii, the mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, Texas and California), consider contacting marine organizations for information on how you can volunteer to grow aquatic vegetation and plant it along beaches and in the shallows.

Seafood Limbo

The story of most food fisheries, particularly of Atlantic cod and Atlantic halibut, is one of boom and bust. We discover a new tasty critter from the ocean, and commercial fleets focus on the species in an attempt to catch it in large amounts to maximize their profits from a fish that is in high demand. The trouble is that when we harvest so many fish we damage the population, a practice called overfishing.

Some fish do not reproduce quickly enough to support having millions of pounds harvested every year. In the case of orange roughy (Hoplostethus atlanticus), fisherman often caught individuals that were decades old and belonged to a species that did not spawn regularly or generate many offspring. It wasn’t long before the fishery was said to have collapsed in several areas off Australia and New Zealand. Collapsed fisheries do not have population levels high enough to make targeting them worthwhile. Despite this, it’s easy to find orange roughy in supermarkets throughout the United States.

This spiny lobster hides out in a marine protected area near the Exuma Islands of the Bahamas. Spiny lobster fisheries in the warm waters off the U.S. are tightly regulated. Photo: Sarah Lardizabal.

In addition to the problems of overfishing, there is a serious problem with different methods of catching fish. Any fish, reptile, mammal, bird or other creature that is not the target species of a net, line or hook, but that is caught anyway, is called bycatch. With some fishing methods, the amount and types of animals caught as bycatch can be staggering and can include seriously threatened species such as sharks, sea turtles, marine mammals - including whales and dolphins - and various sea birds. The fishing gear itself may destroy or disturb the local habitat and act as a double-edged sword by decreasing both populations and the habitat fish depend on. The best fishing practices employ gear that minimizes bycatch and efficiently captures the target species without damaging the environment.

So, what is a conservation-minded person to do? How do we know what to eat and how to make good choices? It would take months to digest the available data and make a reasonable decision on what fish to serve for dinner. Few of us really have the time, the resources or the interest to make such a monumental effort. It’s so much easier to not know and continue to order that delicious swordfish steak! (And believe me, I love swordfish!)

Happily, the good folks at Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute’s Guide to Sea Friendly Foods make it more than easy to learn about seafood and to make good choices. Both organizations publish guides that are designed to fit your wallet so you’ll be prepared the next time you’re at the seafood counter. If you visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium free pamphlets are available and they’re even themed for different regions of the country. Trust me and order something that gets a green fish symbol. It’s an easy thing to do for the world's oceans and reefs, and you might even expand your culinary repertoire.

Caribbean reef sharks, like most species of sharks and groupers, should never be on the menu according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute. Photo: Sarah Lardizabal.

Conservation in the Reef Tank

We all realize the benefits and potential downfalls of captive-raised and aquacultured corals, fish, plants and other invertebrates to supply the marine aquarium trade. Not only do these animals come to us from local sources, they are not drawn directly from – or impacting – wild reefs. They are typically hardy, disease free and stronger feeders than wild caught specimens of the same species, but some aquarists feel that creating an effective “do not buy” list of wild animals will curtail the advancement of the hobby.

The problem is that if we do not voluntarily police our hobby, someone will step in to regulate our actions if it’s determined that aquarium keeping has a detrimental effect on threatened wild habitats. Species that are particularly delicate often attract buyers who feel they can make a breakthrough in husbandry, but breakthroughs are, unfortunately, rare.

Unless we are particularly dedicated and highly specialized aquarists, some species simply do not do well in captivity. Aquarists should routinely question whether a species is so unlikely to survive that supporting its capture (by buying it from shops) is unethical and works against our hobby before they purchase these animals. Species that require a large habitat – such as most shark and grouper species – should be avoided. Most hobbyists should also avoid specialty feeders that cannot be fed without massive resources or time. Some examples include ghost pipefish, sea dragons and some of the adorable, but timid, gobies, deep water butterflyfishes and cleaner wrasses.

The live rock trade is a sore point in the reef hobby at the moment because a lot of rock is coming directly from wild habitats in the Pacific. Arguments are made that by creating a market for reef products, we are supporting countries that might otherwise destroy their reefs to use them as gravel, mortar or in the curio trade. While I agree that we should support environmentally sound practices wherever they occur, the collection of live rock seems to be a losing battle. If we’re clearing rock, whether for gravel, mortar or live rock, we could be clearing habitat. No habitat, no reef, no fish.

In reality, collection of live rock rarely means that an entire reef structure will be removed, and it hasn’t been shown to be a particularly harmful activity.  Collecting won’t entirely destroy habitat for reef animals, but it can change the type of habitat that is available.  When rock is collected, broken material can fall to the seafloor and can be useful to species that enjoy open areas with access to currents and plenty of light.  A little disturbance like this can be a positive thing for a reef community, much in the way that small-scale disturbances from storms can be good for an ecosystem.  

However, reef fish and invertebrates that prefer darker areas for hunting, or that require hiding spaces to avoid predators, might miss the rocky outcrops we’ve collected.  Animals such as reef associated octopi, lobsters, moray eels, cardinalfishes and squirrelfishes may all be impacted by rock removal.  Wild live rock collection may not be the worst thing for the reefs in small amounts, but we should ask ourselves whether we want to support large collections of rock for our hobby.  Considering all the other impacts humans have on reefs, do we really want to advocate adding live rock collection to the list?

Instead of giving up on wild live rock, aquarists could use less of it in their displays and supplement their aquascape with aquacultured rock. Many people already make or use base rock to place underneath wild live rock to keep a tank within their budget. This practice also saves wild rock and habitat. The same could be said of collecting corals and fish from the wild. If we buy fewer wild specimens, and encourage other countries to aquaculture corals and fish for the aquaria market, we could be protecting habitat and the fish that live in it, as well as countries that depend on the ornamental trade. Ecotourism – whether you’re hiking cloud forests in Peru, or diving the Galapagos' or Tonga’s reefs – is another way to support the protection of wild habitats in other areas.

Finally, a myth persists within the hobby that if wild reefs fail, captive populations from home aquariums could be used to replace lost species.  I sincerely wish this were realistic.  Zoos, aquariums and other organizations now hold several dozen species that are effectively extinct or critically endangered, and for which species survival plans exist.  Such plans carefully breed animals with the aim of reintroducing their offspring to the wild.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of such animals cannot be released due to habitat loss. In some cases, habitat still exists, but is insufficient in size or other qualities that prevent reintroduction efforts. (Back on land, in the case of red wolves, Canis rufus, it's often people who don't want the animals returned to their native ranges.)

If there’s no habitat, then there’s nowhere for captive-bred animals to go. Furthermore, reintroduction poses risks for the side-by-side introduction of non-native species including disease-causing microbes. Habitat restoration is a complex field in itself, with many unknowns, and there are currently no protocols or cookbooks to follow that certify reintroduction is an acceptable risk for marine ecosystems.

If reef habitats are destroyed or degraded in the future, the conditions that affected original reefs would need to be addressed (from water temperature to pollution) before the area could be restored to health. Such restoration work would ensure that all the reef's working parts were in place to sustain a healthy environment. Because wild reefs are some of the most integrated biological systems on the planet, the likelihood that aquarium bred specimens would be needed to fill gaps is slim. We must admit that the species in our aquariums are not exactly a realistic sampling of those present on a reef. Parrotfish, for example, are important to the health of reefs but are seldom, if ever, maintained in home aquariums.

Plus, commonly kept aquarium species may be more likely than non-ornamental wild fish to survive habitat degradation, given the observations that they routinely survive the stress of shipping and transfer to home aquariums.  We keep them because they’re hardy enough to survive this process.  They also possess an ability to adapt to an altered environment and diet while in captivity and may do the same in an altered wild habitat.  Instead, the sensitive animals that are likely to be the first to vanish from a degraded reef habitat would be ones that aquarists aren’t likely to maintain, let alone breed. 

But let me come down from the podium. I’m definitely not discouraging the practice of aquaculture or captively breeding any marine animal.  Scientists and zoologists may indeed need to keep marine species in carefully controlled breeding programs in the future to keep species from extinction.  Our hobby should aquaculture reef species- with the intention of building an inventory to rely upon in the coming years, should wild harvest be outlawed and, of course, to proactively limit our actual effect on wild ocean habitats.  

Passing It On

Admittedly, there is no shortage of information about ocean conservation in the news, between people at the water cooler or at lunch. As mentioned, most people are very aware of environmental problems. However, most people are less aware of how to live in ways that help the environment. Thinking back on our capacity to make “small dents” in a problem, if you were to share the ideas from this article with one person, that’s an additional person now able to do something positive for the natural world. Every little action counts.

More importantly, every little person counts. Teachers in most American schools are swamped with administrative tasks and performance testing that leaves little room for lessons about the oceans and wildlife. (Forget about field trips!) One of the most important things we can do as reefkeepers (and everyday folks) is to put our children in touch with the natural world. Children who love the ocean and wildlife usually become adults who love the ocean and wildlife. And adults, who have an interest in keeping reefs healthy, are just what we need to ensure that wild places have a chance in the future. So take your kids fishing, involve them in everyday tank chores, let them help pick out fish, help them raise tadpoles in their own aquariums and take them to the zoo, the public aquarium and the park down the street.

You don’t have kids? One of the most meaningful contributions a reef club can make to its community is to sponsor a tank (freshwater, FOWLR or reef) in a local school or community center. Offer to provide equipment, fish and maintenance, and put yourself on the front lines of inspiring future naturalists, biologists, policy makers, engineers and commercial fishermen. You don’t have to sink a lot of money, or a lot of time, into one of these displays to make a big impression.

Even if you aren’t excited about working with children, there are always opportunities to get out there and literally lend a hand for ocean conservation, whether it’s organized or on your own time. This article has outlined several ways to contribute and has identified a few organizations to contact to learn about volunteer efforts in your area. Don’t forget that zoos, public aquariums, wildlife rescue groups, state natural resource departments, universities and nature centers all need volunteers to function.

Whether you are counting horseshoe crabs in the Atlantic to assist a research project, planting sea oats on a public beach or committing your talents to improve an aquarium display, you’ll be actively improving our oceans and making your own dent in the problems of conservation.

If you have any questions about this article, please visit my author forum on Reef Central.

Suggested Further Reading, Websites and References

AP. 2003. Caribbean coral reefs down eighty percent. CNN. Online at: http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/science/07/17/coolsc.coral/index.html

AP. 2006. Be worried, be very worried. CNN. Online at: http://edition.cnn.com/2006/US/03/26/coverstory/index.html

AP. 2003. Only ten percent of big ocean fish remain. CNN. Online at: http://www.cnn.com/2003/TECH/science/05/14/coolsc.disappearingfish/index.html

Gewin, V. 2004. Troubled Waters, the future of global fisheries. PLOS Biology 2(4). Online at: http://biology.plosjournals.org/perlservjournal.pbio.0020113

Helvarg, D. 2006. Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness. Sierra Club Books.

Helvarg, D. 2006. 50 Ways to Save the Oceans. Inner Ocean Publishing.

Louv, R. 2006. Last Child in the Woods. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill: Chapel Hill, NC.

National Research Council. 2003. Oil in the seas III. The National Academies Press: Washington, DC.

Soule, M., Norse, E. & L. Crowder. 2005. Marine Conservation Biology: The Science of Maintaining the Ocean’s Biodiversity. Island Press: New York, NY.


Monterey Bay Aquarium Research







NOAA Fisheries Restoration webpage

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trust Council, run by the State of Alaska

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The Conservation Minded Aquarist by Sarah Lardizabal - Reefkeeping.com