Wild caught or captive bred?

Wild caught or captive bred fish is a long running debate in the fishkeeping hobby.  This article aims to consider the issues surrounding this debate, and help you decide which you prefer to keep in your own aquarium.  The focus of this article is freshwater fish; the situation with marine fish is a whole other article in itself and one that we hope to add to our site soon.

There is often a feeling that taking anything from the wild is ‘bad’, but is this really the case in all instances?  And are commercial farms any more sustainable than catching wild fish?  The social, economic and environmental issues are strongly connected.  We’ll take you through some of these issues, and show some examples to help illustrate the points.

Wild caught and captive bred – what exactly do they mean?

Wild caught fish have been taken from the wild in order to be sold into the aquatics trade. These fish are taken directly from their natural habitat, for example lakes, rivers and seas. They are then packed and shipped all over the world to wherever there is a market for them.   Wild caught fish are sometimes referred to as F0 fish.  F1 fish are captive bred offspring of wild caught fish.  F2 fish are captive bred offspring of those, and so on.  Not all species/breeders use this system and as you can see, it would soon get unmanageable.  But the F0, F1 and F2 labels can be useful in identifying wild caught and immediate offspring of wild caught fish.

Captive bred fish have been bred in captivity.  It is, however, possible that their parents were wild caught, or that they have wild caught fish somewhere in their ancestry (after all, everything starts somewhere).  Captive bred covers a multitude of breeding establishments from large scale commercial farms to hobbyists breeding fish at home.

How do I know which are wild caught and which are captive bred?

Certain species are more likely to be wild caught than others so by ensuring you have done suitable research on your chosen fish you should be able to establish the likelihood of them being wild caught or captive bred.  Many of the ‘bread and butter’ fish are farmed fish, for example guppies, mollies, platys and Siamese fighters (Betta splendens).  Line bred fish such as fancy goldfish are all farmed as these fish do not exist in the wild and never have in the form you see in the shops.  Clown loaches (Chromobotia macracanthus) are almost all wild caught as they are exceptionally difficult to breed in captivity, although some hormone induced spawnings have been recorded. Your retailer, and your own research, should be able to tell you where the fish have come from.

What are the arguments for and against?

Many hobbyists are keen to buy fish which are brought into the trade in the ‘best’ way.  It would be great if we could point at one thing and say “that’s the best” but that isn’t possible as there are pros and cons to each one.  By raising awareness of the various issues we hope you will be in a better position to decide which one you think is best for you, and for the species you want to keep.  As with most things in life, there is always more than one side to any story.

Overfishing and damage to wild populations

A popular argument for captive bred fish is that wild fish are vulnerable to overfishing and captive bred fish don’t reduce the wild populations.  Farmed fish can help reduce the demand for wild caught specimens, and can play an important role in easing the pressure on wild populations.  There have been some high profile cases of wild populations being decimated by collectors keen to cash in on the popularity of certain species for the aquatics trade.

A good example of this is the celestial pearl danio, also known as the galaxy rasbora, scientific name Danio margaritatus/Celestichthys margaritatus.  This was discovered in 2006 and quickly became a very popular aquarium fish.  Initially the fish in the hobby were all wild caught from one area of Myanmar.  By 2007 there were reports of wild populations being close to extinction, and of habitat being damaged by collectors.  Myanmar’s Department of Fisheries banned exports of them in February 2007 in order to conduct a survey of the species’ habitat and population.  Additional populations have since been discovered and there is now no known immediate threat of extinction from over collection.  Demand for wild caught specimens has reduced significantly as it has become apparent that the species breeds readily in captivity.

Celestial Pearl Danios were originally all wild caught
Celestial Pearl Danios were originally all wild caught

Another high profile example is the zebra plec, Hypancistrus zebra.  This species is extremely popular in the hobby and originates from the Rio Xingu Basin in Brazil.  The Brazilian government banned exports of the fish in 2004 claiming that collection for the aquatics trade had damaged wild populations.  This species does not breed easily in captivity and is still very much sought after.

These high profile cases have led many to believe that taking any fish from the wild to sell into the aquatics trade is a bad thing.  While it’s fair to say that these are both examples of species which have been threatened by the aquatics trade, it’s not fair to say that this is true for all species the world over.  Wild caught fish can be managed sustainably and this can bring a number of benefits to the local people, the environment and the economy.

Benefits to local people

In areas where the local human population is economically deprived the aquatics trade can provide a stable and sustainable source of income if managed appropriately.  We can see that the collection of the celestial pearl danio was not managed well in the beginning which is why the population came close to extinction so quickly.

There are other cases where species are collected sustainably and provide an income to the local people.  A good example of this is the ever popular clown loach, Chromobotia macracanthus.  Indonesia has made it illegal to catch large specimens as these are the breeding adults.  Clown loaches take a while to get to breeding age so it’s important that the breeding population is maintained.  The local fishermen have adapted their methods to maximise catch while allowing larger fish to remain at large.

The vast majority of clown loaches are wild caught
The vast majority of clown loaches are wild caught

A project in Brazil has proved that sustainable catching of fish for the aquatics trade can provide a regular source of income for local people.  A community on the Purus River catches and sells discus fish in order to supplement their usual income.  They’ve worked with external parties to develop sustainable methods of fishing, and to develop ‘fair trade’ relationships with buyers.  In an ideal world, it would be great to have “Fair Trade fish”, where a larger proportion of the money in the trade actually went to the fishermen that produce the fish operating much more widely.  This project, and others like it, are a sort of halfway house between wild caught and farmed.  In this example the locals catch the fish in the larval/fry stage and transfer them to breeding areas where they are raised.  Many of these baby fish would not make it to adulthood under normal circumstances as they would be considered prey by other species.  So by using these methods the locals can raise more fish and thus not affect the wild population.

Project Piaba in Brazil is another project working with local people and other stakeholders to produce sustainable wild caught fish.  The sales of fish benefit the locals and the project does a lot of work in education and raising awareness of the issues involved.  It works on conservation and habitat as well as improving understanding of the socio-economics involved.

Captive bred fish will not provide any income to the local fishermen.  If they were not involved in the aquatics trade they would have to find alternative sources of income.  In deprived areas and developing countries this is not as simple as it sounds.  Examples of alternative industries could be farming, or working in goldmines.  Both of these can have a significant impact on the environment.  Many gold mines in areas like Indonesia use mercury to separate the gold out and make it easier to collect.  The mercury is a huge environmental and human risk; it gets into the waterways and is ingested by food fish as well as any ornamental species.  Farming can often involve deforestation and significant alteration of the environment.  In some cases the local people may have no option but to move into towns and cities in search of work.  This fractures communities and tradition while the life in towns and cities can be hard and often means living in poverty.

Habitat

A large number of the fish in the wild are seriously threatened by habitat loss, meaning that the environment the fish live in is being destroyed. This is largely caused by humans altering the habitat, such as building dams, using mercury in
 goldmines, cutting down forest around the river, and many other activities that we as humans do that change things where the fish live.

The local people who fish the rivers and lakes where most tropical fish come from do not earn a lot of money from the fish, but they do earn some money from them.  To continue earning that money, the rivers and lakes where the fish are caught need to be kept in conditions that 
are good for the fish, or the income will go away.  If the local population has a vested interest in the fish they have an inherent vested interest in maintaining the environment the fish live in.

Projects such as Project Piaba and the discus project mentioned above show that habitat can be safeguarded if there is a value to it.  That value can be financial or other but in areas such as rural Brazil and Indonesia the financial element is important as the local people need an income from something.  If a fish has a commercial value then the habitat that supports that fish will also have a value attached to it and thus is more likely to be preserved.

The zebra plec was banned from export as the Brazilian government claimed that the species was under threat from over collection.  However, that same government is now in the process of building, or trying to build, a large dam in the same area the zebra plecs live.  Their habitat will be destroyed.  In the face of such large scale development would it have been better for the zebra plecs to have retained a financial value by being able to be exported for the aquatics trade?

Zebra plecs originate from Brazil, their habitat is now under threat from development
Zebra plecs originate from Brazil, their habitat is now under threat from development

It’s also important to consider the environmental impact of ornamental fish farms.  They take up a large amount of water, the waste water needs dealing with (sometimes it isn’t dealt with appropriately) they need large amounts of food and sometimes species can escape and cause problems in native waterways.  There are some examples of feral captive bred fish causing problems for native species.  Fish have been known to escape during floods and accidental leaks, as well as being released by irresponsible keepers.  These ‘alien’ species have been shown to cause problems for native species. There are vast numbers of common pleco, Pterygoplichthys pardalis all over the world, well outside their native distribution in South America. They are causing problems for other fish that live in the lakes and rivers, because they outcompete the native species. They can also cause problems to fish-eating birds. This is just one of several examples of how fish from aquarium breeding can become a threat to native fauna.

Economics

The aquatics trade is estimated at being worth over $1000 million.  That covers dry goods as well as livestock, but the value of the livestock is still in the region of several hundred million dollars with around two thousand species and millions of specimens being traded annually (University of Florida).

Economics ties in with every other aspect of the wild caught v captive bred debate.  For example, the celestial pearl danio was originally caught and sold as a food fish.  The locals who caught them earned very little for selling them as food, approximately 0.05p per fish.  When they switched to selling them into the aquatics trade they made significantly more money per fish, approximately 1p per fish (Practical Fishkeeping).  The socio-economic situation of the local people is poor; it’s not unreasonable for them to look for new ways of finding an income.  Bear in mind however that while local people benefited from the trade, they are the ‘bottom of the food chain’ as far as the supply chain is concerned.  There are several other stages, all taking their cut of the profit, before the fish gets to a shop to be sold.

The Brazilian government claims they banned the export of the zebra plec in order to protect wild populations.  However, it has since been suggested that there is an ulterior motive to the ban and that the Brazilian government is merely holding off export while it assesses how best to benefit from taxing said exports.

We’ve mentioned above that attaching a financial value to a species, and its habitat, can often help with preservation and conservation as the habitat and wildlife need to be managed sustainably in order to continue to provide an income.

Shipping

An argument sometimes brought up in the case of captive bred fish over wild caught fish is the shipping.  Wild caught fish have to be shipped from the point of capture all across the world to wherever there is a market for them.  These journeys can mean many hundreds of miles packed in bags and boxes.  However, many captive bred tropical fish come from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, which in the case of Europe is roughly the same transport time as those arriving in Europe from South America or Asia from being wild caught.  Many captive bred fish are also transported all over the world, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they are bred in the country they are sold in.

There have also been claims that a large proportion of fish arrive dead after being shipped. Information from importers implies the general figure is below 10%.  This includes fish that are getting delayed at the airports on their way to the importer and other such accidents.  Exporters are generally very good at packing fish so that they arrive in good condition.  It is in their own interest after all; if the fish are not in good condition when they arrive at their destination the importer is likely to go elsewhere, and there are often quite a few competing companies that export fish from any given source country.

Quality

It’s sometimes said that wild caught fish are better quality than captive bred.  The colours of wild caught fish are often said to be ‘truer’ or more vibrant than those of captive bred ones.  Wild caught fish are more likely to have better genetic diversity as the choice of breeding partners is wider in a large population.  The ‘survival of the fittest’ theory could be argued to hold truer for wild caught fish than captive bred ones.  It’s likely that breeders will cull poor examples of fish if they want to keep quality, and their reputation, high.  However, where fish are being mass produced it’s quite possible that quality will suffer.

Choice

Not all species breed easily in captivity, if at all.  Clown loaches are one of the most popular aquarium fish, but they are also exceptionally difficult to breed in captivity.  So far it’s only been achieved by means of using hormones to stimulate the fish to spawn, natural spawns have been documented twice in the UK but this is by no means able to support the demand for them.

Other more unusual species, such as green laser cories, are usually wild caught.  The same is true for many cichlids.

Unusual fish such as these Green Laser Cories may well be wild caught (these particular ones are known to be wild caught)
Unusual fish such as these Green Laser Cories may well be wild caught (these particular ones are known to be wild caught)

Keeping a wild fish in captivity

There are many things to consider when deciding whether to keep pets of any sort, not just fish.  The arguments for and against are many and varied and subject to much debate.  We’re not going to cover those issues here though.

However, there are several things to consider when assessing how you feel about taking a fish from the wild and keeping it in an aquarium at home.  There is often a feeling that a wild caught fish will suffer from not being able to roam about in a large area.  This all depends on species however, not all need a large area.  Some are naturally inclined to live in small territories.  If you can provide a tank size similar to the territory size the fish has claimed in its natural habitat the fish is unlikely to consider itself hard done by.

While you could argue that it’s unfair to remove a fish from the wild, you could also argue that you are removing it from the possibility of becoming lunch for any passing predators, you’re providing a constant source of food for it and keeping it safe from environmental threats.

Some species need the sanctuary of the aquatics trade in order to survive.  The red tailed black shark is now on the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) red list as it is critically endangered, if not extinct, in the wild.  This decline was originally blamed on over collection for the aquatics trade, but there is now a large question mark over habitat destruction actually being a key reason (IUCN).  The species continues to do well in the aquatics trade however, and all specimens available today are farmed ones.  Without the aquatics trade it’s possible that the species would not have declined in quite such a drastic fashion in the wild, equally, without the aquatics trade the species would have no sanctuary while its habitat is destroyed by farming and pollution.

As ever, there is the bigger picture to consider.  By keeping a species in captivity how are you contributing to the economy of the area that produced it, how are you contributing to the safeguarding of the environment, how are you contributing to the preservation of said species?  Researching your chosen species carefully, and considering all angles of all the arguments, will help you see the bigger picture.  And only then can you really decide on which is best for you and your chosen species.

References

Seriouslyfish.com, species profile Danio margeritatus (online) available at http://www.seriouslyfish.com/species/danio-margaritatus/ (accessed September 2012)

Seriouslyfish.com, species profile Chromobotia macracanthus (online) available at http://www.seriouslyfish.com/species/search/chromobotia (accessed October 2012)

Practicalfishkeeping.co.uk, Clown loach export bans upheld (online) available at http://www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/content.php?sid=4047 (accessed October 2012)

Practicalfishkeeping.co.uk, Fishkeeper successfully breeds clown loach (online) available at http://www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/content.php?sid=1584 (accessed October 2012)

Practicalfishkeeping.co.uk, British fishkeeper successfully spawns clown loach, (online) available at http://www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/content.php?sid=1381 (accessed October 2012)

Loaches.com, Breeding Clown Loaches – Granville Hammond (online) available at http://www.loaches.com/loaches-in-books-magazines/breeding-clown-loaches-granville-hammond (accessed October 2012)

Clarke, M, Practicalfishkeeping.co.uk, 2007, New populations of Celestichthys discovered (online) available at http://www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/content.php?sid=1230 (accessed September 2012)

National Geographic, June 2012, The Pride of the Purus River: An Iridescent Income from Ornamental Fish (online) available at http://newswatch.nationalgeographic.com/2012/06/11/the-pride-of-the-purus-river-an-iridescent-income-from-ornamental-fish-2/ (accessed October 2012)

Project Piaba (online) http://opefe.com/piaba.html (accessed October 2012, link updated April 2013)

Hill, N, Practicalfishkeeping.co.uk, 2012, Are you a ‘Wildy’ or a ‘Farmy’? (online) available at http://www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/content.php?sid=5055 (accessed October 2012, link updated April 2013)

University of Florida, The Ornamental Fish Trade: An Introduction with Perspectives for Responsible Aquarium Fish Ownership (online) available at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fa124 (accessed October 2012)

University of Florida, Freshwater Ornamental Fish Commonly Cultured in Florida (online) available at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/fa054 (accessed October 2012)

IUCN, The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (online) available at http://www.iucnredlist.org (accessed October 2012)

IUCN, Epalzeorhynchos bicolor (online) available at http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/7807/0 (accessed October 2012)

Globalmercuryproject.org, Influence of illegal gold mining on mercury levels in fish of North Sulawesi’s Minahasa Peninsula, (Indonesia) (online) available at http://www.globalmercuryproject.org/database/Upload/Indonesia%202001%20Kambey%20Minahasa%20and%20ASM.pdf (accessed October 2012)

The Jakarta Post (2009) Mercury in gold mining: a Third World toxic threat (online) available at http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2009/01/12/mercury-gold-mining-a-third-world-toxic-threat.html (accessed October 2012)

National University of Singapore, Freshwater Fishes of Southeast Asia: 
Potential for the Aquarium Fish Trade and Conservation Issues (online)available at http://rmbr.nus.edu.sg/articles/dbs/aquarium_more.html (accessed October 2012)

OATA, How to care for wild caught freshwater fish (online)available at http://www.ornamentalfish.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/37-Wild-caught-freshwater-fish.pdf (accessed October 2012, link updated April 2013)

University of Columbo, Sri Lanka, A Review of the Status and Trends of Exported Ornamental Fish Resources and Their Habitats in Sri Lanka (online) available at ftp://ftp.fao.org/docrep/fao/007/ad920e/ad920e00.pdf (accessed October 2012)

Yahoo News, Armoured catfish wreaking havoc in South Florida lakes (online) available at http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/sideshow/armored-catfish-wreaking-havoc-south-florida-lakes-182812663.html (accessed October 2012)

Further reading

IUCN Red List and aquarium fish
Collecting wild needlefish in South Central Thailand
IUCN Freshwater Fish Specialist Group – Home Aquarium Fish Sub-Group (HAFSG)

Author: Mats Petersson & Suzanne Constance
Photographs: courtesy of Fishlady at fishkeeping.co.uk

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