Re: NANFA-- Collecting ethics

Todd Crail (
Sun, 11 Jan 2004 00:54:57 -0500

This might help you a bit and get this into scope... It'll save you a little
time anyway :)

"Three Questions, Moore Answers"
American Currents, Winter 2003

"Is it ethical to collect fishes that are listed as Special
Concern but are not legally protected?

Whew, ask me a hard one next time! My carefully considered, unshakable
opinion is this: It depends. In many cases (probably
most, in fact) the fish in question is abundant where it can be
found, but its habitat is disappearing for one reason or another.
In this case I see no harm in removing a dozen or so specimens.
You just need to be aware of what the stressors are, and how
your activity might impact a given population.
Just as one should not go into a battle of wits unarmed,
neither should you undertake to collect a potentially imperiled
fish without doing your homework."

"Letter to editor: Of Special Concern
is reason for concern"
American Currents, Summer 2003

I find myself in strong disagreement with D.
Martin Moore's advice concerning the ethics of collecting
fishes listed as "Of Special Concern" (AC,
Winter 2003, p. 34, "Supplicants, Ethics, and
Antibiotics"). Mr. Moore acknowledges that this is a
difficult issue ("a hard one"), but in most cases "the
fish in question is abundant where it can be found, but
its habitat is disappearing . . .". He concludes that he
sees "no harm in removing a dozen or so specimens,"
although he concedes that a collector should be aware
of how collecting "might impact a given population."

The designation Of Special Concern (OSC) is
commonly used by state agencies and professional
organizations to describe species that appear to be in
trouble but for which definitive data are lacking (that
are rare, endemic, disjunct, threatened or endangered
throughout all or part of their range, or are in need of
further research, using Natural Heritage Program
terminology). The American Fisheries Society now
prefers the term Vulnerable over OSC (see Musick,
1999 and Warren et al., 2000). OSC is also often used
at a local/regional level for federal candidate species-
those being considered for Threatened or Endangered
status under the Endangered Species Act but that have
not yet completed the legal process.

It is generally accepted within the conservation
community that endangered species laws are seldom
applied in advance of real problems, that species only
acquire legal protection when they are in serious trouble.
Official designations are unfortunately reactive, not
proactive or pre-emptive. The tortuous and torturous
legal process by which a species receives official
protection gives such status primarily to species on the
brink of extinction, often too late to accomplish much
good (see Christopher Scharpf 's Summer 2000 AC
chronicle of events surrounding the listing of the
Alabama sturgeon for an excellent case study). As a
result, the lists created by professional societies and
state agencies, which carry little or no real legal weight
or penalties, are always longer than those produced by
federal governments (e. g., Warren et al., 2000). "Of
Special Concern" means someone is waving a red flag,
that we think there's a problem but we don't have
enough information to know for sure.

It is naive at best to expect collectors to first do an
adequate assessment of population size and status
before collecting; academic, state, and federal agencies
with their trained biologists find this a challenging
task. Imperiled species that lack legal protection-
meaning the vast majority for which we lack such
unequivocal data on population status and decline-
therefore become prime targets for exploitation, made
more desirable to aquarists because of the known rarity
proclaimed by the OSC designation. It is irresponsible
(and hence unethical) of those who claim to be concerned
about protecting biodiversity to assume that one does
"no harm in removing a dozen or so specimens" of a
species that may be in trouble. This is a presumption
of no effect in the face of incomplete evidence. It stands
in direct contradiction to the Precautionary Principle,
that the wisest course of action to take where evidence
suggests a problem is First of All, Do No Harm.

There are plenty of beautiful, fascinating, challenging,
unimperiled species around to keep in aquaria
without potentially contributing to the problem of
species declines.

Gene Helfman
University of Georgia
Scharpf, C. 2000. Politics, science, and the fate of
the Alabama sturgeon. American Currents 26 (3)
[Summer]: 6-14.
Musick, J. A. 1999. Criteria to define extinction
risk in marine fishes: the American Fisheries Society
initiative. Fisheries 24 (12): 6-14.
Warren, M. L., Jr. and 11 others. 2000. Diversity,
distribution, and conservation status of the native
freshwater fishes of the southern United States.
Fisheries 25 (10): 7-31

"D. Martin Moore responds:"
American Currents, Summer 2003

It was a bit presumptuous of me to believe that I
could address this issue in a single paragraph, which
was then subject to further editorial truncation. Indeed,
I suspect that an entire issue of AC would not suffice to
explore the issue of aquarium ethics in all of its aspects.
Dr. Helfman has done a good job of addressing some
of the pitfalls of collecting (an unfortunate terminology,
as we shall see) species that are considered "vulnerable"
or "of special concern." But my question was whether it
is ever ethical for aquarists to remove these fishes from
the wild, and his response is "No" and "Never," and
this is a position that I simply do not accept.

Dr. Helfman presents the Precautionary Principle
("First of All, Do No Harm") as a litmus test. Aside
from the fact that this is an impossible standard
(mankind's daily existence causes harm), it is one which
the academic community itself does not practice.
Population and life history studies that may primarily
serve to generate statistical data points result in the
capture and preservation of hundreds, even thousands,
of potentially imperiled specimens. Some public aquaria
needing display animals dip their nets into the pool as
well. There is no question that these activities are
potentially harmful (i.e., the impact is difficult or
impossible to assess), but the danger is balanced
against the benefits of public education and awareness,
and a better understanding of the target species.

I take note that Dr. Helfman does not directly
state that he considers these efforts at information
gathering by ichthyologists to be ethical either, but he
does fling a few barbs at hobbyists in particular, stating
"It is naive at best to expect collectors to first do an
adequate assessment of population size and status
before collecting; academic, state, and federal agencies
with their trained biologists find this a challenging
task" and "Imperiled species . . . therefore become
prime targets for exploitation, made more desirable to
aquarists because of the known rarity proclaimed by
the OSC designation." The first statement seems to
sanction destructive information gathering techniques
by presumably qualified professionals (which is not
always the case either), while dismissing the hobbyist
(whom I would refer to as an amateur naturalist) as a
collector of rarities, seemingly motivated by the scarcity
of the object of his passion (hence my objection to the
term "collecting"). While quite a number of professional
biologists have a "Hands Off!" attitude towards
their occupationally challenged brethren, many more
will point at hobbyists' contributions to the body of
knowledge. For example, captive propagation of
species that are imperiled or extinct in the wild is an
activity primarily engaged in by aquarium aficionados.
At the very least, professional fisheries biologists use
propagation techniques that were developed by aquarists.
Furthermore, amateurs are frequently the most outspoken
champions of vulnerable species, fighting to
give their concerns air time and print space, and to get
educational curricula into our schools. No dyed-in-thewool
NANFAn needs to be told this, but those who
are unfamiliar with the goals and interests of NANFA's
membership need a gentle reminder occasionally.

As to Dr. Helfman's observation that collectors
are unable to "do an adequate assessment of population
size and status," he is largely correct. Instead of doing
firsthand research, amateurs are more likely to rely
upon published data when deciding the ethics of
sampling a given species. Most also utilize their relationship
with experienced professionals as well in order to
make an informed decision. One of the most important
functions of NANFA is to bring these two groups
together for the exchange of information and the pursuit
of common goals. The depiction of aquarists as environmental
tomb raiders is simply inaccurate. No conscientious
amateur would remove fishes from their habitat
against the specific advice of his professional colleagues,
or against his better judgment. Aquarists should not
capture fishes indiscriminately, but instead use the best
information available to make a wise and ethical decision.
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