Editor’s Page: On the cusp of a marine livestock tipping point
23 Aug, 2019
Editor’s Page: On the cusp of a marine livestock tipping point
Excerpt from CORAL Magazine, Volume 16, Number 5
It’s often said that the reef aquarist must be an oceanographer, a biologist, a chemist, a hydraulics engineer (or least a passable plumber), an aquatic nutritionist, and an underwater gardener-landscaper.
It may also help to be a cockeyed optimist, what with the mounting predictions that coral reefs as we know them are on track to be gone by the year 2050. Whether or not this aquatic doomsday becomes a full reality is unknowable, but the impacts on the marine aquarium world are already being felt. As countries, states, and regions make moves to protect their threatened reefs, wild harvests of marine aquarium livestock have been interrupted in several major sources over the past 18 months. With trade from Fiji, Indonesia, and Hawai’i all interrupted, more and more concerned aquarists are wondering where our future aquarium fishes, corals, and other invertebrates will be sourced.
Senior Editor Matt Pedersen, in preparation for the September/October 2019 issue of CORAL, and his presentation at the big MACNA Conference dedicated to “Celebrating Aquaculture,” has been immersed for many weeks in marine breeding and wild-collection questions, and offered the following viewpoint to set the tone as we look towards the aquacultured future.
– James Lawrence,
A Tipping Point Into the Aquacultured Future?
Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell defines a tipping point as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” As the marine aquarium hobby and industry charge ahead in the face of ever-increasing pressures from anti-aquarium activists and governments taking steps to shutter marine aquarium fisheries, one must ask whether the context of our time is ripe for a sea change in how and where our fish and corals are sourced.
In our latest review of the state of captive-breeding, the grand total of marine fishes bred in captivity reached 398, adding 39 species in the last 18 months. Seven years ago, our first list included just 233 species; consider that it took from 1972 to 2012—40 years—to arrive at that number, an average rate of 5 to 6 per year. In the last 7 years, the pace of species being added to the list works out to be about 24 species per year. Is this marked increase a sign of a tipping point to come?
Gladwell points to the “The Law of the Few,” and as he describes it, “The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” Another way to look at it, it’s the notion that a handful of influential people in the right place at the right time leads to a seismic change in the way things are done. Who are these people, and how are things changing?
Enter the Mavens
If I’m to follow this Law, then we might consider researchers and breeding pioneers like HPU’s Oceanic Institute’s Dr. Chatham “Chad” Callan, the team leader behind the world’s first captive-breeding of the Yellow Tang, as one of Gladwell’s “Mavens” (said to be those who spark change through information and ideas). While discussing our list with Callan, he asked, “If a random butterflyfish (or any other species for that matter) is captive-bred once and never again, what does that mean for the hobby? We don’t address the chasm between new breeding successes and actual industry impact. I’m looking to narrow that gap and think we have the collective ability (among us all) to do it!”
But are marine aquarists ready to buy aquacultured livestock? In a recent survey sent to more than 31,000 CORAL online subscribers, consumer sentiment turned out to be overwhelming. In the Aquaculture Futures Survey we conducted, 70% of respondents¹ suggested that our reliance on wild-caught marine fish should be reduced or altogether eliminated, and 84% of respondents² already prefer to buy aquacultured livestock for their aquariums when it is available. When asked to rank what was most important when shopping for livestock, retail consumers³ ranked health 1st and quality (coloration, deportment) a close 2nd. Industry participants (exporters/importers, wholesalers, retailers)³¹ firmly believe that price is important (ranking it 3rd most important for their customers). Based on my own firsthand observation and longstanding industry participation, it seems that a new captive-bred fish has a hard time breaking into the market unless it’s comparably priced to its wild-caught counterparts.
But the responses of retail consumers on our survey surprised us. Price was tied with Diversity of Choice for the 5th and 6th spots (out of 10 total factors), beat out by the importance of animals being quarantined or aquacultured (tied for 3rd and 4th rank). Rounding out the list (7th through 10th)? In descending order: Customer Service, Guarantees/Warranties, being able to special order, and in dead last: Wild-Caught Livestock. Either we have a very altruistic set of retail consumers in our survey, or maybe we are looking at the tipping point where the retail price of a fish is not the determining factor in whether a captive-bred offering finds commercial success.
It Takes Some Convincing
The September/October 2019 issue of CORAL features an interview where you’ll meet Tom Bowling, founder of Biota Marine Life Nursery in Palau. One might consider Bowling to be one of Gladwell’s archetypal “Salesmen”, someone with the power of persuasion to get people behind an idea, and in our own industry, appearing to overcome the market pressure of inexpensive wild-caught fish.
Working in conjunction with Callan’s team at the Oceanic Institute, the aquarium industry has seen the spectre of the first captive-bred Yellow Tang leveraged into routine commercial availability of these aquacultured fish through Bowling’s Biota Aquariums in Florida. But, defying the historical odds, Biota’s tangs are priced substantially higher than their wild-caught counterparts, and they’re still selling.
Could it be that the near shuttering of Hawaii’s aquarium fishery (the industry’s source of Yellow Tangs) provided the context in which a more expensive captive-bred offering could be viable? Perhaps, but wild-caught Yellow Tangs are still available, albeit at higher than historical prices, but still far less than Biota’s offerings. Perhaps it’s a combination of a changing and uncertain supply, and a shifting consumer sentiment, which created the opportunity for a genuine tipping point to occur, at least when it comes commercially available captive-bred Yellow Tangs. But who is influencing consumer’s buying decisions?
Connecting Aquarists with Aquaculture
If researchers like Callan are the “Mavens” and commercial producers like Bowling are the “Salesmen”, then where are Gladwell’s “Connectors”? In this metaphor, connectors aren’t necessarily making introductions between people, but are instead introducing consumers to aquacultured options. I’d argue the marine ornamental aquaculture industry’s connectors include special-interest media (including CORAL magazine) and educational events (MACNA, the MBI Workshops) but perhaps, most importantly, the local fish shop. They are the ones who choose what to stock in their stores, what to show off to their customers. I believe they are still the most influential day-to-day tastemakers of our hobby.
One such retailer is Jen Lowy of the Connecticut-based Colchester Pet Shop, who notes that the largest challenge her business will face in the years ahead will be getting aquacultured fish. “We get as many as we can and try to stock them, but there are some popular fish that aren’t available for months at a time because of variables beyond the breeders’ control. If I could I would only stock aquacultured fish, but that isn’t realistic, yet. In order for that to happen, we need more people and facilities to step up and breed fish. We need to have influencers in our field really advocating for aquaculture and showing people how important it is. We have some people who are doing just that, but we need more.”
Prognostications and Balance
The drive towards an aquacultured future is seen by some as a very necessary evolution of the marine aquarium hobby, a goal to be proactively pursued. Others see it as something that might just happen inevitably, reactively or passively even, as our hobby and industry are facing a very different tipping point…one of public perception that seems all too easy to sway with misinformation.
In the face of growing sentiment that aquaculture is the only truly sustainable option in the coming decades, there are those who staunchly defend the importance of wild fisheries due to their socio-economic importance to the communities that depend on them. We also need to remember that aquaculture doesn’t happen in empty water; wild-caught broodstock are an essential part of the equation for captive breeding to be successful. Perhaps we should aim to stay balanced, lest the seemingly inevitable tipping point into an aquacultured future becomes a sudden fall off a cliff.
– Matt Pedersen
¹ under 6.9% error at 95% confidence interval [n=199] as of August 13, 2019
² under 5.2% error at 95% confidence interval [n=371] as of July 24, 2019
³ under 9.3% error at 95% confidence interval [n=114] as of August 13, 2019
³¹ under 14.2% error at 95% confidence interval [n=48] as of August 13, 2019