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5 Ways Aquarium Keepers Can Be Conservationists

From dazzling multi-story tanks in aquariums and marine labs to carefully curated displays in classrooms and private homes, fishkeeping can offer windows into the colorful and complex interrelationships under the ocean’s surface.  But can captive fish be managed in a way that synchs with conservation values? Our guest blogger this week is David Thomas from Everything Fishkeeping. Learn about bridging fishkeeping and conservation, below, and take a moment to explore some of the threats facing wild ocean fish, here.

Most aquarium keepers and fish enthusiasts, it seems safe to say, have a higher-than-average investment in the well-being of animals, and a greater appreciation for the complex and delicate beauty of the natural world, particularly its too-often-ignored aquatic environments.

Even those who do not start on their aquarium keeping journey with a particular concern for the environment will soon learn about the unique and enchanting power of marine environments, from forest vernal pools teeming with life to the brightly colored depths of a tropical reef.

Amateur aquarists, then, are likely more concerned than most about the rapid deterioration of these environments in the face of pollution and the effects of man-made climate change.

These are serious problems that can seem insurmountable, especially by people with relatively little money and power on the global scale. Fortunately, there are a few small things aquarists can do to help make sure they are supporting sustainable practices, preserving the marine habitats that support their beloved fish in the wild, and not contributing to overfishing and other destructive techniques that wreak havoc on the natural world and the animals that live in it.

  1. Buy captive-bred instead of wild-caught fish and coral.

Overfishing is one of the biggest problems humans are causing marine animals these days, and while much of it is for the seafood industry, a fair amount is funneled into the hobbyist aquarium market as well, particularly for coral. Although coral harvesting is illegal in the United States, this beautiful natural resource continues to be exploited and irreparably harmed by unscrupulous businesses and overeager tank decorators. Aquarists should try to purchase sustainably raised captive-bred fish and farmed coral whenever possible. They might also consider replacing their coral with artificial coral or cultivated rock. 

  1. Use a “cleaner crew” of sustainable snails and crustaceans.

Filters are an important part of any tank setup, but they are also a power suck that can get clogged or fail unexpectedly. Instead, aquarists might consider equipping their tanks with a population of small animals that will clean the tank for you, like the tropical cherry shrimp, which loves to feast on algae, or a Cerith snail that delights in eating your other fishes’ leftover food. Having a cleaning crew will not completely eliminate the need for a filter, but they will help create an equilibrium in the tank that should prevent your filter from being overworked and sucking more power. 

  1. Dispose of your unwanted (dead or alive) fish properly and safely.

Despite the urban legend cemented into the national psyche by films like Finding Nemo¸ even throwing a dead fish down the drain is a terrible idea. A flushed fish can introduce elements into the sewer system and later the wildlife that do not belong, like the disease or parasite that killed them. For anyone looking to get rid of a live fish, releasing them into the wild is, if anything, worse than flushing; fish released in the wild hold the potential to severely mess with the balance of the local ecosystem and even become an invasive species. People with a dead fish on their hands should consider burying it in the garden, where it will become a great fertilizer for flowers or a vegetable garden. Those looking to get rid of a live fish might try to connect with another fish keeper online – on Craigslist and eBay or over social media – or simply see if their local pet shop is willing to take in a very good fish.

  1. Choose your equipment and create your setup wisely.

Aquariums unfortunately require a fair amount of electrical equipment to run, including a filter, a heater, and lights. This is a power usage that cannot be eliminated but can be reduced. Anyone who lives in a cold region will almost certainly need a heater for their tank, but they will use it less if they remember to move their tank away from windows, doors, and drafty corners. Light usage can be reduced by buying LED bulbs (where appropriate) and capitalizing on the maximum amount of natural light available. Frequent water changes and a good “cleaner crew” (discussed above) will help your filter do less work, and making sure all of the equipment is designed for your size tank – no bigger and no smaller – will make sure they get the job done without wasting energy trying to heat 10 gallons of water when there are only five there. Even something as simple as plugging all of these gadgets into a power strip will help reduce your aquarium’s electrical footprint.  

  1. Reuse and repurpose supplies whenever possible.

The old elementary school advice about “reduce reuse recycle” is still relevant and still darn good advice for anyone looking to reduce both their carbon footprint and their budget. Freshwater aquarists can reuse their aquarium’s “used” water after a water change to nourish their plants and gardens. (Saltwater aquarists should only use this trick if they are trying to grow dead plants.) Aquarium decorations can also be repurposed, either from old aquariums or by scavenging some driftwood or appropriate gravel to fill your tank without filling the oceans with more unnecessary plastic objects.  

Keeping an aquarium is a beautiful and fulfilling way of bringing a little bit of the natural world into your home, the part of the natural world we see least often and know the least about.

However, it is important to remember, while controlling and taming little pieces of the environment for human enjoyment, we still have to respect and protect the original wilderness from whence those little pieces came.

Fortunately, with a little bit of thoughtful planning and mindful decision making, these two impulses can work together in concert in creating a beautiful, sustainable piece of the marine environment right in your home.