(c) Snorkel Bob

The potential lifespan of coral reef fish is much longer than people tend to think. Take yellow tangs, for example: those who make it through the initial trials of their lives can live for decades -- some will survive over 40 years.

99.9% of newly hatched Yellow Tangs will become food for other fish as they drift along in Hawaii's offshore waters before settling onto a coral reef. If their chosen reef is one protected from aquarium collecting, they'll select a spot in a finger coral patch and stay within a few meters of that very spot for many months where they will eat algae, grow and hide from predators.

On this protected reef, an estimated 99% of these young tangs, will also be eaten by other fish, playing an important role in the reef food web. But a surprising 1% of those who first made it to the reef will survive to be 5 to 7 years old, and as an adult fish, will spawn for the first time and contribute to the survival of their species.

As adults they'll move into shallower areas where they'll graze on the algae growing on sunlit reefs, keeping everything in balance. Many of these adults will live for decades on this protected reef where the average Yellow Tang age is 11, many are in their 20's and 30's and some even make it past 40.

This is the life of a Yellow Tang in the wild.

But, for those initial open water survivors who happen to choose a reef frequented by aquarium collectors, not only are their days numbered, but the reef will suffer the loss, as well.

Of the those who manage to survive the cumulative stressors of capture, shipping and inadequate care, very few will survive a year in captivity. 

Every day, both new and experienced hobbyists post questions in online forums, asking for guidance on how to keep their fish alive.  The example below was posted by "Jeff M" on Yahoo! Answers on April 4,2011, and is a classic example of what's happening to these animals:

"Yellow Tang help please, all advice?
                                What advice..ANY advice can you give about keeping a Yellow Tang? I have had 4 now and they all died. One did ok but got stuck in between the sand and a rock. The last one I just bought, died in 2 days and seemed to fit right in!!!! Then he was white one morning which I heard they do that when they sleep. Well...he was yellow when I came home from work but dead..."

Aquarium 'guru' Bob Fenner, author of the Conscientious Marine Aquarist, posted on his website (www.wetwebmedia.com) the following answer to a question about yellow tang longevity: 

"Most are [] likely killed off in the first month of care (from hobbyist mistakes, inappropriate tankmates, starvation...).

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.            


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. 

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.

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.


Working to Keep Hawaii's Reef Animals on Hawaii's Reefs!

Reef Animal Welfare