The ornamental fish sector is a widespread and global component of international trade, fisheries, aquaculture and development. However, the scope of this sector and the impact on human and aquatic communities are often inaccurately known and unappreciated. Statistics reported to FAO from member States indicate that the world export value in 1998 of ornamental fish was US$174 million, with imports valued at US$257 million.
Since 1985 the value of international trade in exports of ornamentals has increased at an average growth rate of approximately 14% per year. Developing countries account for about two thirds of the total export value. The entire industry, when non-exported product, wages, retail sales and associated materials are considered, has been estimated to be worth around US$15 billion.
Such a vast and important industry has the potential to contribute to the economic growth of states concerned and the sustainable development of aquatic resources, but faces future challenges regarding environmental and social issues.
With the levelling off or decline in production from many capture fisheries, people are looking for other ways of harnessing aquatic biodiversity. One useful option is the sustainable harvest and culture of ornamental fishes. In many developing countries the harvest of fresh and marine ornamental fish provides income in areas where little other options exist for employment.
Ornamental fishery resources face a range of challenges: the need for their conservation and sustainable use; the need to ensure that benefits are equitably shared; problems caused by habitat loss and degradation, harmful fishing practices (over-fishing and destructive fishing, such as the use of cyanide); and changes in international trade patterns and concerns about the introduction of exotic species.
The majority (> 90%) of freshwater ornamental fish are captive bred compared to only about 25 of a total of 8 000 in the case of marine fish. However, efforts are being made to breed and domesticate many of the high value marine species. The ornamental fish industry relies heavily on the export and import of introduced species: industry NGO's have taken steps to educate importers, retailers and consumers on the proper handling of ornamental fish to minimize environmental risks.
The sector also uses coral, both as dried decoration and as living components of fish tanks. International trade in hard corals is restricted by Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). In addition, many soft corals have hard coral bases to which they are attached and as such, the soft corals also become restricted under CITES. Industry NGO's are critical of the fact that about 3,000 mt of coral are traded in the ornamental fish industry, but this has to be compared with hundreds of thousands, or indeed millions of tonnes of live coral mined for construction purposes (Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association information).
Although the FAO Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries does not specifically mention ornamental fisheries, they are assumed to be covered by the Code. The Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association (OATA) has also created a Code of Conduct for the aquarium industry in the UK.