Reining in the Aquarium Trade

Each year humans trade 20 to 30 million tropical marine fish for aquariums, representing more than 1,800 different species. The United States is the world’s largest consumer, buying up to 80% of the tropical fish on the global market. The aquarium trade is largely unregulated and untracked, and collection often involves practices like cyanide poisoning that hurt the entire coral reef ecosystem. And while captive-breeding efforts are expanding, at least 90% of aquarium fish are still caught in the wild.

For almost all aquarium fish species, scientists don’t know how many are left in the wild, so it’s impossible to know if the staggering demand for pet fish is driving them toward extinction.

It’s time to rein in the aquarium trade through tighter monitoring and regulation, so we don’t lose any of these swimming gems.


Banggai cardinalfish naturally inhabit only one place on Earth: Indonesia’s Banggai Archipelago. The males among these small, iridescent fish are dads of the year: Paternal mouthbrooders, they incubate the eggs in their mouths, not eating for 30 days to protect the future swimmers. Because of their low reproductive capacity, limited range and short lifespan, these fish are especially vulnerable to extinction.

Sadly, the same shimmering silver-and-black stripes that give these fish perfect camouflage also make them a prime target for collectors. Sought after for their beauty and rarity, they rank among the top 10 aquarium fish imported into the United States by volume. Their wild population has declined up to 90% since the 1990s, when the species entered the trade.

In 2016 the U.S. government recognized Banggai cardinalfish as “threatened” under the U.S. Endangered Species Act but didn’t give the fish any additional protections. The Center for Biological Diversity and our allies are pushing for a ban on imports and sale of these fish to reduce threats from the U.S. aquarium trade.

The species is also threatened by habitat destruction, sea-level and temperature rise, and coral bleaching.


Corals are in deep trouble. About 50% of the world’s coral reefs have disappeared since the early 1980s, and scientists say the rest could be gone by the end of this century.

Already gravely imperiled by climate change and ocean acidification, many corals are also threatened by trade for use in aquariums, jewelry and curios. Coral collection can result in overharvest of slow-growing corals, cause habitat damage and introduce exotic species. The United States is a main market for corals, importing around 70% of all live corals in trade.

The Center has petitioned the U.S. government to ban imports of 20 coral species listed under the Endangered Species Act.


The orange clownfish — famous for its leading role in the movie Finding Nemo — and an array of brightly colored damselfish species are part of a family of fish (known as the “pomacentrids”) that depend on coral reefs. The Center petitioned to protect the orange clownfish and seven of the most vulnerable damselfish in U.S. waters, since all eight of these species are imminently threatened by climate change, ocean acidification, coral bleaching and the aquarium trade.

Clownfish and damselfish are also hit hard by the aquarium trade. Some studies suggest the orange clownfish and black-axil chromis may be suffering declines in the wild due to overharvesting for aquariums.

In response, in 2014, the National Marine Fisheries Service announced that the orange clownfish may warrant protection because of threats from global warming and ocean acidification. Ultimately, though, neither the clownfish nor any of the damselfish were declared worthy of protection at that time.

The Center has also petitioned to protect the corals the clownfish and damselfish need to survive. The Endangered Species Act provides a suite of conservation tools that would create a safety net for reef fish and corals, as well as tools to help address the threat from greenhouse gas pollution.

Banggai cardinalfish photo by Noodlefish/Flickr