Freeing Nemo: Aquarium owners releasing non-native fish could endanger marine ecosystems

Flushing your pet tropical fish to set it free is a bad idea. So is releasing it at the beach. Intentional and unintentional aquarium releases have been a leading cause of freshwater fish invasions, but now researchers from the University of Washington and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation have found 16 non-native species of fish apparently set free from home aquariums in ocean waters off the southeast coast of Florida.

This is an unprecedented number of non-native marine fish in a concentrated geographic area, says Brice Semmens, a UW doctoral student in biology and lead author of a paper published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.

Using data on the aquarium trade and shipping traffic, the study is the first to convincingly demonstrate that well-meaning pet owners can cause a "hot spot" of non-native tropical marine fish, Semmens says. The 16 species were found in 32 different locales along the coast of Broward and Palm Beach counties and in the upper Florida Keys. Some were in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

Most of the species were seen at more than one place meaning more than just a few aquariums have been dumped, Semmens says. It is not clear which, if any, of the non-natives have established breeding populations, he said.

The more times a species is released, however, the greater the chance of establishment, says Walt Courtenay, fisheries biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Gainesville, Fla., who is known around the world for his expertise on exotic fishes. He is not a co-author of the published paper.

"Typically, I'd say aquarium owners are more concerned with the status of our marine ecosystems than the general public is, yet many appear unaware of the potential pitfalls of releasing pets into the wild," Semmens says.

The study relied on information submitted by volunteer divers and snorkelers through the Exotic Species Sighting Program of the Reef Environmental Education F

Contact: Sandra Hines
University of Washington

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