Once upon a time, all of our saltwater fish, invertebrates, and corals were wild caught.
Hobbyists were still using compact fluorescent bulbs and tap water in their reef tanks, under
gravel filters were still cutting edge technology, and most people had their fish for six to twenty
four months before they died of “old age.” These days are long behind us now and as our
technology advances in great strides, so does our understanding of the species we keep and
their true care requirements. Nowadays, it is difficult to find wild caught Ocellaris, Maroon, or
Percula clownfish and many more species are starting to be sustainably bred in captivity so as
to lower our impact on natural reefs and their resources. Instead of simply giving a list of
reasons why you should buy captive bred specimens, I hope this article helps show you why we
need to focus on breeding more and more species and how it can actually benefit the hobbyist
as well as the ecosystem.
Popular Fish Species Now Being Captive Bred
One of the most popular aquarium fish is the Mandarin (Synchiropus splendidus). Because they
have a very specific diet of copepods and amphipods, they are considered an expert level fish
by some hobbyists. But, captive bred species are able to be quickly trained onto frozen foods
and can be a simple fish to keep! Due to their delicate nature, I have found them to have a
higher mortality rate than other species during shipping. In addition to this, beginner hobbyists
who do not research the dietary needs of the fish also increase the mortality rate of newly
caught specimens since they are starved to death in new tanks. If captive bred mandarins
become commonplace, it will greatly decrease the number of individuals killed due to our
Aiptasia and mojano pest anemones are a problem in many saltwater aquariums. While many
people opt to add a filefish (Acreichthys tomentosus) to control these pests, a lot of filefish end
up avoiding the anemones altogether. They instead opt for coral or prepared foods. But,
captive bred filefish are actually raised on a diet consisting of mostly aiptasia anemones.
Because of this, they instantly target these problematic anemones and ignore corals and other
foods. Opting for a captive bred specimen can end up saving countless Acan, Zoanthid, Blasto,
and Euphyllia colonies from being decimated in hobbyists’ tanks.
Coral Beauty angels have long been renowned as one of the most popular and beautiful dwarf
angelfish. But, I have found that angelfish are more susceptible to ailments such as flukes, ich,
and velvet than other fish. Many of the wild angels I order get to me and are already infected
with flukes that require treatment. This also means many die in transit due to stress in addition
to possible infection. And, angels can be sensitive to copper during quarantine, Because of this,
I much prefer captive bred coral beauties as it drastically reduces the number of fish who perish
in shipping or in our tanks because the hobbyist is unable to identify the problem (flukes are
nearly impossible to see in the gills) until it is too late. It is said that captive bred individuals are
also less aggressive than their wild counterparts.
Another iconic saltwater fish is the Yellow Tang (Zebrasoma flavescents). So iconic, that Hawaii
alone exports 300,00-500,000 per year for the aquarium trade. While their natural populations
are not in danger due to protected areas covering much of their habitat, they are another
species that develops ich and HLLE easily and can die purely from stress during transit. Captive
bred species have been noted as more disease resistant and adapt to aquarium life much
easier. Since tangs are active fish who swim miles a day in the ocean, many wild caught
individuals just don’t adjust well to small tanks and may even starve or stress themselves to
In some areas, illegal fishing practices are overlooked and ignored. These practices can be
destructive to the reef, fish collected, and the surrounding ecosystem. Unfortunately, the
Blue Hippo Tang (Paracanthurus hepatus) has been linked to these practices in many areas. Some
reports also so local populations disappearing or dwindling in select regions due to over fishing
the Blue Tang. Because of this, the captive breeding efforts to sustainably rear these fish was
welcomed with open arms by hobbyists and the public alike. These hardier, more disease
resistant tank bred tangs are a much more environmentally conscious choice.
In addition to these species, many other fish have been bred in captivity in recent years. These
include Bangai and Pajama cardinals, Neon Gold gobies, Neon Blue gobies, Clown triggers,
Rainfordi gobies, Striped Fang blennies, Forktail Blennies, Molly Miller Blennies, and Link gobys.
What about other tank bred species?
Many invertebrates have been bred as well, such as Trochus, Cerith, and Nassarius snails,
Peppermint and Harlequin shrimp, Pincushion urchins, cuttlefish, octopuses, and multiple
Other reasons to consider captive bred fish
Aside from the reasons most places give to customers considering a tank bred specimen, there
are other topics that I feel are important to cover that are often overlooked. In some areas,
particularly the Philippines and Indonesia, fishing practices are very loosely watched and many
fishermen use illegal methods of capture. Many people who purchase livestock from importers
or directly from suppliers avoid buying from regions like this because the amount of fish that
die is atrocious. One researcher found that in his facility, nearly 60% of fish and a quarter of the
inverts he bought from the Philippines died within 40 days of being put into his system. These
tanks were attached to another set of aquariums that was housing fish from areas with more
rigorous collection laws. He had no fish or inverts die before adding these fish, and only about
6% of these “higher quality” fish died within the next forty days (no invertebrates died). Since
they were in a shared system, the only difference to account for the different mortality rates
could be from collection practices.
In the areas with the problems outlined above, one of the biggest threats to marine life is the
use of sodium cyanide. It is used to stun fish to make capture easy but in return decimates the
reef in the immediate area and causes irreversible damage to the internal organs of the fish.
These fish show no outwards signs that would alert consumers that they were caught this way.
Fish caught with cyanide will live a few weeks to a year or two after capture until inevitable
organ failure causes them to perish.
In conclusion, captive bred fish and invertebrates are a much better option if you have the
choice between them and wild caught specimens. Buying tank bred fish is the only way to
guarantee that your fish was not caught with cyanide in most instances. Cyanide caught fish are
cheap and easy to export, so unfortunately the majority of our aquarium fish come from these
regions. Plus, each fish caught with cyanide causes up to a cubic yard of the reef to be killed.
Those reasons alone are enough to convince many people to switch over to these sustainably
bred fish. These ecosystems are already incredibly stressed and dying in a lot of areas, so if we
can lessen our impact by breeding popular species we could help ensure that our grandchildren
will get to enjoy the beauty of living coral reefs. As a hobby, we need to continue to support
breeding efforts. Who knows, maybe in the future captive bred fish will save a species if it were
to go extinct in the wild. This has already been the case in numerous freshwater cichlids, and I
hope that we can use our hobby to help reefs in a similar way.