Coral reefs versus marine ornamentals

Written by: Manu Madhavan

Edited by: Bobbie Renfro

“A rough sea makes a dark art,

the coral sea makes a coral garden

keep it, and care for it

for the next generation.” – Manu Madhavan

We know that coral reefs are among the world’s most complex and fragile ecosystems and support around 25% of ocean life. Reefs provide food, money, and protection to about half a billion people. Local businesses benefit from fishing, diving, and snorkeling on and around reefs to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. The annual net economic worth of the world’s coral reefs is estimated to be in the tens of billions of dollars. Marine ornamentals can be defined as attractive and engaging sea creatures that are kept as pets in aquaria with the purpose of enjoying their beauty for fun and fancy. Many marine ornamental fishes are like living jewels for their beautiful color and sparkling playful behavior.  Marine ornamental animals are a precious resource and their husbandry is one of the most popular hobbies in the world after photography (Pramod et al.,2017). This developing industry is likely to expand more in the coming years. A large proportion of animals sold in the aquarium trade are still collected from coral reef habitats instead of being aquacultured.

Species in the Trade

The stony corals (order Scleractinia) dominate the ornamental coral trade, but soft corals are also a popular commodity with around 400,000 individuals representing 61 species (Craig et al., 2011) shipped in the aquarium trade each year. More than 500 species of invertebrates (other than corals) are marketed as marine ornamentals, while a specific count is difficult to calculate due to the lack of a consistent taxonomy, including echinoderms (seastar, urchins, and sea cucumbers), actiniarians (sea anemones), crustaceans (shrimp, crabs, and lobsters), polychaetas (Christmas tree worms), and poriferans (sponges) are also popular in addition to corals with the trade is estimated to be between 9 and 10 million creatures (Wabintz 2003).

Fig 1. Linckia seastar species with a stony coral
Fig 2. An example of an ornamental anemonefish Amphiprion nigripes

Environmental Impacts of this Trade

Scientists have discovered that tropical coral reefs are disappearing at a pace of 2% per year, which is about twice the rate of rainforest degradation (Bruno et al. 2007). The reasons of coral reef deterioration are as diverse as the reefs themselves. For example; The harvesting of Dascyllus aruanus species, which hide among branching corals, may cause damage to them. With thousands of individuals of this species transported each year, this might result in significant collateral coral damage. Although exploitation levels of ‘cleaner wrasses’ (Labroides bicolor and L. dimidiatus), appear to be much below theoretically sustainable levels, it is unknown if the health of reef fishes may be harmed locally in extensively fished regions (AJ Edwards et al., 1992). The collection of live rock has been deemed potentially harmful since it may result in greater erosion and loss of critical fishing habitat. Illegal, uncontrolled, and poorly managed legal commerce in coral reef species, as well as destructive collection practises, are also threatening coral reef resilience and survival.

Live corals are also directly collected for the aquarium industry removing the animals that the entire coral reef relies on for habitat. It is believed that the collection of wild marine ornamental species is responsible for 2% of global coral reef degradation (McManus et al., 1997). Coral and live rock has shown the most rapid growth in popularity in recent history, with over ten million corals and millions of kilograms of live rock being exported annually.

Fig. 4 Wild collection of marine ornamentals from coral reef ecosystem
Fig 2. Clownfish Amphiprion percula

So what is the solution?! Conservation through captive breeding!

Due to over-exploitation and risky collecting methods, the global expansion of the marine aquarium industry has led to the extinction of coral reef ecosystems. Operations that practice responsible aquaculture emphasize sustainable production methods to minimize negative environmental effects and promote resource conservation. Today, this technique is growing on a global scale. Through the advancement of marine ornamental aquaculture, the ICAR-National Bureau of Fish Genetic Resources (NBFGR) in India has begun work on a practical operational approach for balancing biodiversity protection and livelihood improvement in Lakshadweep Islands. Shrimps and sea anemones, two highly sought-after marine decorative invertebrates, now have standardized captive breeding processes as well as successful packing and shipment. They have extended the technique to local islanders as a source of income that promotes coral reef conservation.


Bruno, J.F. & Selig, E.R. (2007). Regional decline of coral cover in the Indo-Pacific: Timing, extent, and subregional comparisons. PLoS ONE, 2(8).

Calado, R., Olivotto, I., Oliver, M.P. and Holt, J., Marine ornamental species aquaculture, John Wiley, UK, 2017, pp. 1-677

Craig, V., C. Allan, A. Lyet, A. Brittain, and E. Richman. “Review of trade in ornamental coral, coral products and reef associated species to the United States.” Washington DC: World Wildlife Fund (2011).

Edwards, Alasdair J., and Alec Dawson Shepherd. “Environmental implications of aquarium-fish collection in the Maldives, with proposals for regulation.” Environmental Conservation 19, no. 1 (1992): 61-72.

McManus, J. W., Reyes, R. B., and Nanola, C. L. (1997). Effects of some destructive fishing methods on coral cover and potential rate of recovery. J. Environ. Manage. 21, 69 – 78.

Pandey, Pramod K., and Sagar C. Mandal. “Present status, challenges and scope of ornamental fish trade in India.” Conference: Aqua Aquaria India, At Mangalore. 2017.

Wabnitz, C., Taylor, M., Green, E. & Razak, T. (2003) From Ocean to Aquarium: The Global Trade in Marine Ornamental Species. UNEP‐WCMC, Cambridge, UK.

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