Thursday, March 25, 2010

32. Artificial Nature: The Case of Exotic Pet Industry

By Kamran Nayeri, March 25, 2010

Our relation to the rest of nature certainly suffers from Homo sapiens' egoism and quest for profit. Let's consider some examples of how the "exotic pet" industry functions.

According to a New York Time article by Henry Fountain, there are an estimated 700,000 saltwater home aquariums in the United States. But with the development of technology, the aquariums are now often small-scale reef ecosystems, with living coral and “live” rock brimming with anemones, shrimp, sea urchins, crabs and snails.

"The result has been a growing market for these and other reef invertebrates, many of which are supplied by about 165 licensed collectors in Florida."

Scientists disagree over the impact of "harvesting" coral reef species for salt water ecosystem aquarium trade. Aside from the long-recognized ecological impact of the trade in live coral itself, some researchers believe that "the demand for invertebrates — creatures that often serve the same cleaning and pest-control roles in a tank that they do in nature — is such that the fishery may be unsustainable.

“'We may be increasing the catch up to a point where you push something over the edge,' said Andrew Rhyne, a marine biologist with Roger Williams University and the New England Aquarium who has studied the Florida invertebrate fishery. 'The question is, where is that edge?'

"If a species is overharvested to the point where its numbers decline dramatically, Dr. Rhyne and others say, there can be a cascading effect in the ecosystem. Without invertebrate grazers and herbivores, for example, a reef may be overrun with algae."

Other scientists, like Jessica McCawley, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, disagrees that the fishery is threatened. She agrees with the traders that collect these species who claim that "scientists don’t have the experience they do in seeing these invertebrates go through regular cycles of bust and boom."

"While acknowledging that some collectors are aware of the dangers of overfishing, Dr. Rhyne said there had been little scientific study of the blue-legged crabs and the hundreds of other species that are collected, including the 15 that make up about 90 percent of the catch. For example, with certain snails it is not known how long it takes for them to start to reproduce. If it is more than a year, then harvesting many of them from the same location year after year could be disastrous. There are many species that are probably not a concern, Dr. Rhyne said, but he added, “I don’t think anyone can use the word ‘sustainable’ when they don’t know enough about the animals.”

The desire to collect and keep wildlife privately or for public view is ancient. However, with the advent of commercialism and expansion of world trade combined with the rise in standard of living and personal purchasing power it has become a serious threat to the wellbeing of species and ecosystems.

During the past two decades reef tanks have surged in popularity in the United States. "These aquariums include home or office tanks of a few gallons to several hundred gallons or more, and attractions like the 20,000-gallon coral reef tank at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead, N.Y., considered one of the finest anywhere."

Over the same period, the types of invertebrates changed. "In 1994, only 6 species among the top 15 were collected and sold for their ecological roles as cleaners, grazers, water filters and the like. The others were harvested for their ornamental value — because they look pretty in an aquarium — or as curios to be sold in shell shops and other stores. The most popular “working” invertebrates were turbonella snails, with about 175,000 collected.

"Thirteen years later, 9 species among the top 15 collected were sold to fill ecological niches in aquariums, including nearly 700,000 turbonella snails and 2.4 million blue-legged crabs.

“'Now, there are whole suites of taxa that people don’t really care what they look like,' Dr. Rhyne said. 'They only care that they perform these services that are exactly the same as they are performing in the wild.'”

For example, Dr. Rhyne said, peppermint shrimp, of the genus Lysmata, are not as showy as some other shrimp species, but since they control a pest anemone in tanks, their harvested numbers have increased twentyfold in Florida since 1994. “There’s just a huge demand,” he said.

"The attraction to the hobbyist or professional is that using these creatures both replicates the natural ecosystem and reduces the need for less-natural forms of tank maintenance. At Atlantis Marine World, Joseph Yaiullo, curator and co-founder, scuba-dives in the reef tank regularly to scrape algae off the glass or trim the many multicolored corals, some of which he has been growing for two decades. Yet he also has sea urchins — scavengers that do some of the cleaning.

“If I can put some critters in there that make my life easier, I’ll do it,” said Mr. Yaiullo, whose tank has inspired many a home hobbyist. “I’d rather have urchins scraping away than me doing it.”

“'The thing that’s always bothered me is the disposable nature of these animals,' said Eric Borneman, a longtime aquarist who has written two books on coral husbandry and is studying for his doctorate in reef ecology at the University of Houston. With invertebrates, he said, 'there’s a huge amount of mortality in shipping,' and in tanks kept by people just starting out in the hobby. “How do you stop this mortality and this constant influx of animals from the wild to supply this trade?”

The phenomena is not limited to warm coral reef species and aquarium. It is estimated that 38 million animals are taken from nature each year for an illegal business worth $2 billion dollars in Brazil alone (see a 6 minute video presentation by Juliana Machado Ferreira: The fight to end rare-animal trafficking in Brazil). A parallel business in flora not only destroys certain species of trees but also undermine the habitat or the food source for many animals. Wild bees are in a decline because of expansion of farmlands that destroys land that grows wild flowers that provide the food for the bees. Darrell and Lorna Smith, two biologists who live in Costa Rica, wrote recently how Scarlet Macaws and Great Green Macaws that live in a narrow range near the Nicaraguan border are endangered because of loss of habitat and poaching for pets. In particular, the one wild almond tree, Dipteryx Panamensis, that provide food and nesting for the birds is cut down for its hardwood that is in high demand.

The discussion in the media and among the "stakeholders" assumes that traders and hobbyists should have a right to do what they do. The debate is on whether and how much regulation should there be in trade of these species so that ecosystems are not harmed. This framework assumes that nature and its species are for humans use; the debate is how to exercise this right.

However, this very assumption is what Deep Ecologists, Animal Liberationists, like Peter Singer, and some ecosocialists, like me, question. Singer aptly calls those who hold such an assumption speciesist. We will return to this notion later.


Unknown said...

This is an interesting and well written essay. I do look forward to your discussion of speciesism. Reading the article inspired me to order a copy of Animal Liberation. Let's talk after I read it. That may help me understand your serious concerns over human interventions into nature, which I probably do not currently share in the way - your values - that you do.

Kamran Nayeri said...

Robin, speciesism is the belief that one's own species is superior to other species. As I know of no other species that holds such q view, speciesism is limited to us, Homo sapiens. It is a belief that somehow Homo sapiens are the "chosen" species. In the Judo-Christian tradition it is attributed to God's creation. But even secular Enlightenment thought replaced God with Man still reserving a privileged position for Homo sapiens. Even in much of Marxist discourse, "struggle against nature" and "control of nature" as opposed to living as a part of it and in harmony with it is common. As I have written earlier, Darwinian evolutionary theory gives a scientific and rational burial to such speciesist views. In this theory, evolutionary process is not towards a pre-determined goal or resulting in superior species; even though some supporters of the evolutionary theory mistakenly assume so showing that old ideas are hard to die. In my mother-language, Farsi, the word chosen for "evolution" is TAKAMOL meaning "moving towards perfection." Thus, it is very common among Iranians who studied Darwin's theory in high school to think that Homo sapiens are the goal and ultimate result of the evolutionary process. They end up thinking about our species very much in the Judo-Christian tradition or in secular humanist fashion.

Clearly, if we accept the Darwinian evolutionary logic. we are more likely to grant other species equal rights, allowing them to live according to their (un-manipulated) nature. I find this a liberating de-learning experience that makes it possible to rethink our entire "civilization," and, Marx's theory of socialism as overcoming alienation, including from nature. 

I plan to write about Peter Singer's insight on these issues later and I am delighted that you plan to read his book. I think it is a MUST READ text for anyone who is rethinking Our Place in the World.