According to industry experts, the highest mortality rates from reef to hobbyist are shipping related and due to stress and starvation. But the mortalities begin with capture and many animals are dying in Hawaii while under the "expert" care of collectors and wholesalers, before they're ever shipped.
In January, 2010, over 600 fish collected for the trade were found dead, dumped in a Big Island boat harbor trash can. As outrageous as it was, it's just a drop in the bucket. An estimated 3% of all wildlife collected in Hawaii dies before being exported (min. estimate is 10 - 20 thousand annually).
Injuries & stress associated with capture and shipping include:
1. Barotrauma, an expanded gas injury to organs and tissues (e.g. swim bladders, brains, eyes) resulting from being surfaced too quickly.
2. Organ piercing (known in the trade as "fizzing" or "venting") used to mitigate barotrauma swim bladder injury at the surface, or underwater for deep water/high dollar value species.
3. Unnecessary exposure to air and fin and spine trimming (i.e. cutting tissue, bone and nerves), a
practice used by some to avoid the extra packing materials and costs
typically used in shipping fish with sharp spines.
Fortunately, fin and spine trimming, starvation for more than 24 hours and organ piercing were recently recognized by Maui County as cruel and inhumane, and are practices the trade is now prohibited from engaging in.
4. Starvation for 2 - 10 days prior to shipping is used to completely purge the digestive system and facilitate packing and transport in minimal water. This is done solely to reduce freight costs.
These handling, starvation and shipping practices are linked to high dead on arrival (DOA) rates that have resulted in an accepted industry-wide standard of allowing 5% DOA in every shipment with no charge-back to the wholesaler/shipper.
Industry wholesalers and retailers also report that, on average, an additional 4% of reef animals die in their facilities within 3 days, post shipment.
It's important to note that these losses don't occur just once: fish are shipped multiple times in their journey from source country to the end consumers, most of whom live thousands of miles away from coral reefs.
It is clear that for a multitude of reasons, reef wildlife in the aquarium hobby is unable to
survive for anywhere near their wild potential and suffers from essentially non-stop inhumane treatment before finally dying. This raises serious societal as well as environmental concerns - after all, for each animal that dies in a hobby tank, many more are taken from reefs to replace them.