Collecting and Handling Aquarium Fish: A Look at the Marine Industry
Aquatics Staff, Drs. Foster & Smith, Inc.
Kevin Kohen, BS

Collection and handling

When asked where ornamental marine fish come from, the response for many would be either the "ocean" or the local pet store. Though it may seem like a simple question with a simple answer, many hobbyists are becoming more aware that the answer is not quite that simple. Knowing where your marine fish comes from is important. The manner in which marine fish are caught and handled play an integral part in their health and longevity in the home aquarium.

For decades, the live marine tropical fish industry has consisted of many different people and organizations, mostly from the vast chains of islands throughout the Indonesian and Philippine archipelago. The coral reef habitats of these island chains contain the greatest diversity of coral reef species in the entire world.

The chain of custody Chart illustrates the chain of custody collected fish and corals must endure

  • Collection: Most marine fish from these island chains begin their journey with individual collectors who capture and then hold the catch for several days until the lot is sold. At this time, brokers who routinely acquire fish from many different collectors, in different collection locations, purchase the fish. The brokers then transport the fish, often over very long distances, by boat, truck, or other means to an export facility.

  • Export facilities: The major export facilities for marine tropical fish in these countries are located in: Manila, Philippines; Denpasar, Bali; and Jakarta, Indonesia. The batches of fish are offered for sale to the exporter, who selects and then holds the fish again for a period of time depending on species desirability and current demand. At these export facilities, fish are usually maintained in filtered ocean water and sorted. Aggressive species are separated from each other and from more passive fish. The fish will then be consolidated and packaged for individual orders placed by importers/wholesalers in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

  • Import facilities: The majority of tropical marine fish importers in the United States are located in Los Angeles, California. Although there are importers of marine fish across the United States, California is ideal due to its proximity to the Indo-Pacific. Most larger, well-established importers have modern and efficient filtration systems along with well-designed holding aquariums and cubicles to maintain optimum water conditions. The wholesaler/importer will maintain the marine life and fill orders for retailers where the fish are finally sold in local aquarium stores. The hobbyists will then purchase the fish and place the specimens in home aquariums, at their final destination.

How collection and handling practices affect you and the environment

Healthy fish and corals in their natural environment before collection The health of aquarium fish is directly related to the collection practices, holding and husbandry techniques, as well as proper packaging methods employed by everyone in the chain of distribution.

If fish are captured with chemicals or are overstocked in inadequate holding containers (e.g., overcrowded buckets or plastic bags without filtered water, oxygenation, or temperature stabilization), they are exposed to undue stress that directly affects their survivability and overall health.

  • Use of chemicals: For decades, the practice of capturing fish with chemicals such as cyanide has been routine for many collectors in the Philippines and has now spread to Indonesian waters as well. This collection method has a long lasting, detrimental effect on reef organisms and kills corals and other precious habitat. Some of the trained collectors in these regions only use nets for collection. But at this time, they are few in number, making it almost impossible to determine if a particular fish was net-caught without the use of chemicals.

  • Improper handling: Far too often, the collectors, middlemen, and exporters poorly handle many of these fish. Too many species of fish are improperly maintained and frequently packed or transported in less than ideal manners. Needless to say, the more hands that handle the fish in this manner, the greater the stress placed on them.

Because there are literally thousands of collectors and hundreds of brokers and exporters in the Philippines and Indonesia alone, it is often difficult to determine if the utmost care was taken during every step along the journey to ensure the healthiest, best possible fish for the hobbyist.

What can you do to ensure healthy quality fish while protecting our reefs?

On a personal level, you want healthy quality fish to appreciate in your home aquarium and on a global level, you want to make certain we are able to preserve and pass down the legacy and beauty of the oceans and its inhabitants that first attracted us to the hobby.

  • Global level: At this time, there is hope for change in order to protect our precious reefs in the Philippines and Indonesia. Organizations such as MAC (Marine Aquarium Council), Reef Check, IMA (International Marinelife Alliance), WWF (World Wildlife Fund), and CORAL (Coral Reef Alliance) are just a few of the key groups that are providing resources and plans of action in order to promote change in these countries.

  • A great number of hobbyists, marine life dealers, and private individuals are also involved in initiating rapid change in the Philippines and Indonesia by organizing and accepting donations for the purchase and supply of netting material for distribution to Philippine and Indonesian collectors.

    Spend some time looking into these organizations and contact them for more information regarding how you can contribute to their projects. All of us that care about our coral reefs and enjoy this rewarding hobby must work together in order to help initiate and promote change.

  • Personal level: Proper planning and education are the most important factors when deciding which species of fish are ideal for your aquarium and skill level. Researching a species, husbandry and care requirements, as well as understanding how the fish made its way to the home aquarium are of the utmost importance to achieve a stress-free and harmonious aquarium for many years to come. While there are vast amounts of information regarding husbandry and care requirements, a factor that is not understood by most hobbyists is where fish come from and the manner in which they made it to your aquarium.

  • Research where and how your marine fish were collected before they arrived at your home aquarium. It may seem like a daunting task, with so many species and so much information. However, the extra effort is well-worth knowing so you can make a sound choice, and the thriving marine environment achieved in your home can serve as a model for others and a reminder of your efforts.

What Drs. Foster & Smith's is doing to help

Drs. Foster & Smith's is taking a multi-faceted approach in protecting both the environment and harvested fish. We provide and incorporate education, efficient distribution methods utilizing reputable importers, selections from regions with strict collection and shipping protocols, and captive-bred and aquacultured choices.

Education – We believe education and understanding a species' requirements is one of the keys to a successful aquarium. By offering extensive information for every species offered at, we make the process of planning and researching potential inhabitants informative and convenient. We also have a comprehensive library of articles on diverse aspects regarding aquarium ownership and husbandry, written by our & veterinary and expert aquatics staff and industry professionals to help hobbyists succeed.

Efficient distribution methods – We are able to offer healthier quality marine life by eliminating several steps in the normal chain of distribution, minimizing the number of times the fish change hands. Stress has been found to be the number one factor in lowering the immune system of fish, making them more susceptible to parasitic and bacterial infections. Every time a fish is caught, bagged, transported, and then acclimated into a new environment, the fish is subjected to a considerable amount of stress. By cutting out several steps in the chain of distribution, we are able to minimize stress and offer superior fish, invertebrates, and live corals.

Modern holding facilityOur customers receive their orders directly from one of the best importers in the country. We have selected an importer that has strict protocols for acclimation, holding, and husbandry, while employing the most advanced filtration equipment and holding systems. After each species is carefully inspected, they are then selected and packed by an expert crew of well-trained professionals and shipped directly to your door. We are so confident in the quality of our fish, we are able to offer a full 10-day guarantee on marine life available through Drs. Foster & Smith.

Selections from regions with strict protocols – Whenever there is a viable alternative, Drs. Foster & Smith offers fish from areas other than Indonesia or the Philippines. We are proud to offer the largest diversity of fish from areas such as Hawaii, Cook Islands, Christmas Island, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Tahiti, Fiji, Tonga, Melanesia, Australia, Coral Sea, East Africa, Red Sea, Costa Rica and many more locales. We feel strongly about focusing our efforts on fish from areas that employ sound collection, transport, and holding techniques.

These regions not only employ sound collection practices and techniques, but exporters in these areas employ better handling and husbandry techniques. The vast majority of exporters from these regions have modern holding facilities with adequate filtration and choose to employ sound and tested shipping protocols. Although fish from these areas are more expensive, we know they are the best possible fish for the hobbyist and enthusiast. We clearly list the country of origin for every species of fish available at to make selection more convenient.

Healthy aquacultured coral and fish speciesCaptive-bred and aquacultured choices – We are proud to offer one of the largest selections of captive-bred and aquacultured aquatic life. We seek out fish, corals, and invertebrates from aquaculture facilities, breeders, and hatcheries in the United States, Asia, and Europe to provide a viable alternative to wild-harvested fish thus minimizing the impact on our valuable natural resources. By offering these choices to our customers, we encourage these pioneers in the aquarium industry to culture a larger variety of species and provide valuable research and information for the advancement of the hobby.

We encourage you to consider these aspects when selecting your marine life provider. Making conscientious and informed decisions is up to each of us and they do not have to be difficult ones. Drs. Foster & Smith will continue to work hard at always seeking out the best possible aquatic life for our customers, while providing the most comprehensive amount of information in order to help everyone achieve their dream aquarium.

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