See How Fish Get From Coral Reefs to Your Aquarium Tank

A group of marine conservationists traced each step in the process, from capture to display.

See What It Takes to Bring Exotic Fish From the Sea to Aquarium Tanks

Even if you’ve never owned a saltwater aquarium, it’s likely you’ve come across one before—perhaps at a restaurant or in your friend’s living room—with corals aglow and flamboyant fish flitting around them in trance-inducing patterns.

Marine aquariums are a multimillion-dollar a year business and an obsession for many people. Each year about 10 million tropical fish are imported into the U.S., more than to any other country. At least a million households have saltwater aquariums, a 2014 survey by the American Pet Products Association found.

Blue tang is a popular species in the saltwater aquarium trade, a multimillion-dollar industry involving approximately 2,000 types of tropical fish.

Breeders have managed to raise a small number of saltwater species, such as the popular orange-and-white-striped clownfish and the yellow tang. But captive breeding doesn’t nearly satisfy the demand, and the vast majority of the estimated 2,000 species involved in the trade are captured from coral reef habitats in nearly 40 countries, although most come from the Philippines and Indonesia.

Despite its profitability and global reach, the saltwater aquarium industry is largely undocumented. No centralized database tracks how many fish are taken from reefs, for instance, and little information exists about how the capture of fish—sometimes by the destructive use of cyanide and dynamite—affects their numbers in the wild.

As for details about key aquarium fish traders and routes that fish take from origin to destination—that’s largely unexplored territory as well.

The murky nature of the industry spurred a group of four National Geographic explorers to action. “We started thinking about fish and how they’re traded, and we realized we hadn’t heard much about the marine aquarium trade,” said Mikayla Wujec, who has a background in marine conservation. “We all kind of put our heads together and said, ‘Hey, we wish we knew more about this.’”

Armed with a $25,000 grant from National Geographic Society, in 2015 the group—led by Shannon Switzer Swanson, a marine social ecologist and Ph.D. student at Stanford University—traveled to Southeast Asia and around the U.S., interviewing everyone from fishermen in Indonesia to aquarium hobbyists in Colorado in an effort to trace the supply chain of tropical fish and identify ways to lessen the trade’s harmful effects. (The team paid special attention to the capture and transport of blue tang, a species popularized by the hit film Finding Nemo and its sequel, Finding Dory, the release of which coincided with their work.)

They documented the capture, sale, export, import, and display of tank-bound fish through photographs, seen below.

“This is the first project that synthesizes the journey of the aquatic trade,” said team member Andrea Reid, a fish biologist and Ph.D. student at Carleton University and the University of British Columbia.

Added Swanson: “We were really trying to bring that story to life.” 

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Breathing through a long plastic hose connected to an air compressor, this longtime fisherman from the Indonesian island province of Central Sulawesi, works a reef in the Banda Sea by scooping fish into a net before transferring them to a bag at his side. This legal method is considered better for coral reefs and marine life than widely practiced, and illegal, cyanide fishing, which involves squirting the toxic chemical at fish to stun them, making them easy to snag.

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A local middleman, calculates how much he owes a fisherman for a haul of 50 blue tang, a popular aquarium species. He lives in Central Sulawesi, but makes the six-hour trek to the Banda Sea each week to buy fish from collectors. He’ll pack and unpack the fish in oxygenated bags three times before accompanying them on a flight to East Java, where he’ll meet another middleman in the trade chain.

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Blue tang swim in a container at a middleman’s facility in East Java, where they’ll remain from a few weeks to six months until they get bigger. Although there was concern that demand for blue tang—which have only recently been bred in captivity—would spike after the movie’s release and put pressure on populations, marine ecologist Shannon Switzer Swanson says there isn’t enough information to know if that happened.

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Packed and ready for transport at a facility in Santa Ana, Philippines, these fish—which includes dozens of species—will be sent to an exporter in Denpasar, Bali. More saltwater fish are exported from Indonesia and the Philippines than anywhere else.

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Blue tang swim in tanks at Bali Double C, in Denpasar, a large-scale exporter of reef fish founded by Conrad Chen, one of a handful of global traders. The fish will be bagged and boxed in preparation for a flight from Bali to the United States.

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Customs at Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport inspect fish bound for either Europe, Hong Kong, Japan, or the U.S., via Los Angeles—the largest importer of saltwater fish. “There’s definitely a sizable mortality rate through the supply chain, but it’s incredible they’re even making it across the world,” Swanson says.

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Greg Donelson, an aquarium hobbyist who lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, shows off his 125-gallon reef aquarium. Many aquarists say that they want to know more about where their fish came from and how they were caught.

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