Threatened freshwater fish fall through net of mismanaged aquarium pet trade

The global trade in freshwater fish is a large and diverse industry, estimated to be worth around US $15–30 billion a year. Supplied by captive-bred and wild-caught specimens, the aquarium trade is dependent on the replenishment capabilities of wild freshwater fish populations and sustainable methods of capture. Although a new paper published by the Conservation Research Group (CRG) and members of the IUCN SSC Freshwater Fish Specialist Group reveals that up to 30 species of barbs, catfish, loaches and other freshwater fish endemic to two biodiversity hotspots in India are continually traded around the world, despite their threatened conservation status on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™.

Red Line Torpedo Barb
(Puntius denisonii)

The study involved investigating customs records at airports and the availability of specimens in retail shops around the world. The data reveals that close to one third of freshwater fish exported from India are either Vulnerable or Endangered on The IUCN Red List. While some individual exporters do provide data on the details of live cargo, others simply list aquarium fish exports under general labels such as ‘live ornamental fish’. This is the first time such an assessment of the freshwater aquarium trade has been carried out in Asia; analyzing export data to reveal trade routes, species composition and volume. Focusing on the Western Ghats and Eastern Himalaya – two internationally recognized biodiversity hotspots, it is hoped that this study will help to create awareness and lead to the development of a blue print for a self-sustained and responsible aquarium industry.

Research by the Freshwater Fish Specialist Group has also revealed that several Critically Endangered species such as the Red Canarese Barb (Gonoproktopterus thomassi), are collected and exported to satisfy hobbyist preferences for rare and novel varieties. Currently, no legal framework exists for the protection of freshwater fish in India; collection of such species for the aquarium trade is entirely unregulated and even encouraged by certain governmental agencies. Little quantitative data exists on the number and composition of species exported, and this paper makes recommendations for the implementation of a coding system where species name, capture location and the names of collector and exporter are provided at all exit points in India. It also stresses the importance of analyzing trade data for accuracy, and the need for an annual report which ensures that harvesting of freshwater fish is a sustainable practice, having full societal and ecological benefits.

Compounding the threats related to collection for the aquarium trade, the majority of exported species are affected by a variety of additional stressors including large scale modifications of habitat such as sand mining, construction of dams and pollution from pesticides. Increasing global attention on the need to conserve Red Lined Torpedo Barbs (Puntius denisonii), led the Department of Fisheries in the southern Indian state of Kerala to issue a Government Order in 2008; restricting collection and exports of these species. However, recent studies indicate that these regulations were developed with minimum scientific input and offer little protection for the species. During the seven year period from 2005 to 2012, more than 89,000 Red Lined Torpedo Barbs were collected and exported during their breeding season, extending from October to March.

India hosts the greatest proportion of endemic freshwater fish in continental Asia, the trade of which is highly contentious. Some advocate their use in developing local economies and providing incentives for wider environmental conservation, others question the unmanaged nature of their collection and associated population declines of threatened species. Moving forward, it is crucial that policy development for freshwater biodiversity in India involves collaboration between authorities and stakeholders, and finding a way to engage the multiple owners of key aquatic habitats and satisfying their different jurisdictions.

For more information please contact:
Rajeev Raghavan
South Asia Co-Chair, IUCN Freshwater Fish Specialist Group

Work area: 
Protected Areas
Freshwater species
Regional species initiatives
Wildlife trade
North America
Go to top