What a Waste: Coral Reef Fish Die Annually in Northeast Waters

14 August 2014 by Amy McDermott, posted in Conservation, reef fish

Seining for tropical fish off of Long Island NY.

Fishing for tropical species off of Long Island NY.

Every summer, baby coral reef fish from Florida and the Bahamas are swept north by the warm Gulf Stream current, ending up stranded along the East Coast of the United States. They turn up as far as New York, with rare sightings even into New England.

Coral reef fish in the Northeast? It doesn’t seem possible, but in fact, because most baby reef fish begin life as tiny floating larvae, long-distance travel is common. If caught in a powerful current like the Gulf Stream, larvae can be carried thousands of miles from the tropics, ending up very far from a suitable home.

For southern species swept up into New York and New England, seasonally warm bays and inlets offer a few months of shelter. But as autumn comes and temperatures fall, tropical fish will freeze here.

A grouper collected locally

A grouper, family Serranidae subfamily Epinephelus, collected off Long Island in the summer of 2014.

Some of these species– like butterflyfish and groupers–are desirable pets. Known for their bright, beautiful colors, these fish are harvested from reefs in Florida and the Bahamas, but are not collected commercially in the Northeast.

But if the trade in exotic pets is going to continue, shouldn’t we strive for zero impact collections? And in that case, wouldn’t seasonally stranded tropical fish make great pets? These unlucky drifters are excess to reef populations, and will die in autumn before they ever have the chance to breed.

“They’re out of the population the second they get here, and they’re never going back to Florida to reproduce,” says Steve Abrams, manager of SUNY Stony Brook’s Flax Pond Marine Laboratory. “So you know, it seems to me to make more sense [to harvest them for the pet trade]. You don’t disturb a coral reef in order to collect them, and they’re excess to the population– they’re already gone.”

The birds are bold, stealing bait fish from our net.

The birds are bold, stealing bait fish from our net.

But today, no commercial collection efforts are underway. The pet trade in local and seasonal aquarium fish does not officially exist. Licensing is the major roadblock for would-be vendors.

In New York, a commercial fishing permit is required to sell marine fish, period. That means that to collect and sell seasonal tropical species, you would need the same license as a commercial fisherman, hauling in hundreds to thousands of pounds of fish per day. There is a current moratorium on this kind of license in New York State, making commercial permits very hard to come by; less than 10 are issued each year.

And to make matters worse, the application for a license requires proof of a personal history in commercial fishing: documentation of at least $45,000 in income from fishing over a consecutive 3-year period. A history of fish collection for scientific research (with the appropriate permits) is not an acceptable substitute. So, to catch and sell captive tropical fish in New York, you would need a license that’s nearly impossible to get.

Obtaining a commercial permit is the biggest roadblock, but it isn’t the only hurtle to harvesting and selling tropical fish. It’s also hard to predict which groups will turn up in the Northeast from year to year. “It’s really variable annually,” explains Mr. Abrams. “Last year was a really poor year, but it depends on the species.” So, even if you had a commercial permit, there’s no guarantee that desirable aquarium species would show up in significant numbers annually.

A bigeye, family Priacanthidae, is one variety of tropical fish found seasonally in northern waters

Bigeye, family Priacanthidae, are one variety of tropical fish found seasonally in northern waters

What then, should we do? Should Manhattanites with a free weekend assemble nets and buckets and head for Long Island? Should you personally undertake a rescue mission to save these doomed fish, and (legally) plunk them into your own personal saltwater aquarium? Probably not.

The grass beds where tropical species live are fragile and face heavy pressure from weather, disease, and water pollution. Many have been replanted in recent years, and would be damaged by throngs of inexperienced collectors. It’s also easy to misidentify some tropical groups, and accidentally taking the wrong species could result in a hefty fine or even felony charges.

Perhaps the best answer is to create a new kind of commercial license, explicitly available to researchers and hobbyists with expertise in fish collection. For now, the tropical fishes scattered throughout the Northeast face a bleak fate, while breeding populations in Florida and the Bahamas shoulder the brunt of collection pressures. Looking at this situation, I can’t help thinking, what a waste.

If you’re in New York and want to learn more about collecting these tropical fish for personal aquaria, contact the Long Island Aquarium Society at (631) 732-3620, or attend a monthly meeting (every 3rd Friday at SUNY Stony Brook).
















2 Responses to “What a Waste: Coral Reef Fish Die Annually in Northeast Waters”

  1. Susan E. Swanberg Reply | Permalink

    Hi Amy,

    I thought I'd stop by to say hello. What a fascinating article and what beautiful fish! I'd never heard of this reef fish issue before. Thanks for educating me!


  2. keybiotics Reply | Permalink

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