Reef responsibility

Chico Reef Club offers expertise on proper care, environmental impacts of saltwater aquariums

Andrew Johnson said the tropical aquarium trade is moving toward making less impact on reefs with captive fish and grow-your-own corals

Andrew Johnson said the tropical aquarium trade is moving toward making less impact on reefs with captive fish and grow-your-own corals

Photo by Ken Smith

Responsible reefers:
The Chico Reef Club runs an online forum at, as well as a Facebook group.

It’s a scenario that aquarium hobbyists and retailers have become all too familiar with: A family falls in love with the characters from Finding Nemo, decides to try to raise a reef, and a few months and a few hundred dollars later is left with a filthy fish tank bound for Craigslist and the death of a small school of ocellaris clownfish (Nemos) and regal blue tangs (Dorys) on its conscience.

“Patience and research are the two most important things to anyone considering buying a tank,” Chico Reef Club President Andrew Johnson said during a recent interview. He shared a litany of other problems new fish owners encounter—not letting their tank develop in cycles, buying fish that get too big—that regularly lead to improper care and unnecessary loss, both of fragile sea life and interest in aquariums.

“That goes along with the practice of being a responsible animal keeper at any level, but a lot of people just see them as fish in a bowl, and not a living organism the way they view their dog.”

A typical home saltwater aquarium contains dozens of species of fish, corals, plants and invertebrates native to widespread regions of the world’s oceans and seas. Johnson said too few would-be hobbyists ask important questions like where the organisms come from, how they’re collected and how to properly create and care for an astoundingly diverse biosphere that doesn’t exist anywhere in the natural world.

That’s why the Chico Reef Club was formed. Johnson, who’s served as club president for three years, said its main goal is to promote responsible aquarium practices and help newcomers with the difficult learning curve. To that end, the club hosts monthly get-togethers, regular fish and coral swaps, and guest speakers on issues affecting home aquariums and the worldwide tropical fish trade.

“The average is a year before most people give up,” said Johnson, who also serves as a moderator on the international saltwater aquarium online forum REEF2REEF. “We try to save them a lot of hassle and promote the best practices.”

Regulating the tropical-aquarium industry—both fish and corals—is a difficult task considering the number of countries involved, each with differing sets of laws and economic and environmental challenges. The primary organization overseeing the trade is the multinational Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, commonly known as CITES.

Recent regulations imposed by CITES—as well as international, U.S. and state governments—have led to sea changes in the industry over the last few years, largely driven by decreasing populations, which have led to some species (particularly corals) to be outlawed from collection, and others permitted in far lesser amounts. Chris Pozar, owner of Chico Pet Works, and Jody Smith, owner of Reef Connection, both say this has had a profound effect on prices at the retailer and consumer levels.

Pozar used yellow tangs as an example, saying that species of that fish harvested in Hawaii used to be cheap and abundant; now they arrive less often and the cost has gone from about $10 to $40. But, he said the result has been positive.

“It’s changed the dynamic of that certain species,” he said. “There was almost a complete ban because yellow tang numbers were diminishing, and now we hear they’re much more abundant.”

Another problem is with collection practices, which experts say are notoriously abysmal in certain countries. “Some fisheries are really well-managed, like Hawaii,” Brian Tissot, director of the marine laboratory at Humboldt State University, told National Geographic last year. “Australia and Fiji also manage their aquarium trade activities fairly well. But the Philippines and Indonesia—which together account for about 86 percent of the fish imported into the U.S.—have some of the more poorly managed fisheries.”

Tissot went on to say that the use of cyanide to stun fish and make them easy to collect—a practice once common in the industry—has been outlawed in the Philippines, but 50 percent of the fish from there still test positive for the poison.

“When people use cyanide to catch fish, they’re killing 80 percent of the fish they’re targeting, not to mention dumping that crap all over the reef,” Johnson elaborated. “Then it goes to some place to be shipped overseas, and stops through another two or three hubs before it makes it to the pet store. Then if someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing picks it up and puts that fish in a tank—a tiny organism that’s experienced that kind of trauma—its demise is pretty much guaranteed.”

Johnson said it’s important to ask pet stores where their stock comes from, and that local outlets have generally been moving toward acquiring captive-bred fish, some of which are locally raised by hobbyists-turned-professionals.

“I’m definitely concerned [about where fish come from] and I don’t want the industry to be detrimental to the environment,” Pozar said. “We’re seeing more captive-bred stuff, cultivated and fragged-out corals, the types of things that need to be done to keep the industry going. I’d much rather see that than have us continuing to take from the environment.”

In order to add to conservation efforts, the Chico Reef Club has a program called Don’t Break the Chain, in which members who’ve proved they have the equipment and know-how to properly care for corals take a chunk and grow it until they can break off two to pass along to other members.

As far as putting fish into the hands of inexperienced keepers, Pozar and Smith said they try to dissuade beginners from buying animals beyond their skill level.

“When some people come in saying ‘I want a Nemo,’ I have to lightly tell them, ‘That’s not for you,’” Pozar said. “I try to work backward, ask what they want and then say, ‘Why don’t you start with this and work up to that,’ so someday they can have their Nemo without killing a whole bunch of clownfish in the process.”