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

oundation, or REEF, based in Key Largo, Fla. Sightings were confirmed with photographs, video or corroboration by other divers.

The introduced species are native to the tropical western Pacific and/or Red Sea. Emperor angelfish, with their blue masks and bodies striped in blue and gold, were the most commonly sighted non-native species and are imported by the aquarium industry in relatively large numbers. Indeed, the researchers found a compelling correlation between how commonly ornamental marine species are imported and how often they were sighted. Another commonly sighted non-native was yellow tang, a bright yellow oval fish that is the most commonly imported species of the U.S. aquarium trade.

In contrast, Semmens says it is unlikely the exotics arrived in the ballast water of ships. If the fish were being introduced through ship ballast, one would expect the native ranges of the fish to correlate to where the ballast water comes from. Analyzing data on shipping traffic to Florida ports, Semmens and his co-authors found no support for this correlation.

While only a small number of introduced species might have devastating impacts, scientists are unable to predict which species will be destructive. The largest set of intentionally released marine fish was carried out in temperate coastal and inland seas of Russia in the 20th century. Sixteen species became established, with ecologically and economically devastating results, including harm to valuable fisheries, parasite introductions and the endangerment and extinction of native species.

"Releasing non-native reef fish is like playing Russian roulette with tropical marine ecosystems," Semmens says. Then, too, even if introduced species do not have dramatic impacts, their presence is unnatural and unwanted.

"Divers visit the reefs of Florida to see the region's natural beauty and diversity. It is a unique and magical experience to dive on these reefs. Adding new species to the region

Contact: Sandra Hines
University of Washington

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