For all its growing sophistication and global networking the marine aquarium trade still struggles to provide conclusive, comprehensive and practical guidance regarding environmental sustainability for its many practitioners.

The Marine Aquarium Council (MAC) and the trade made an effort in the early 2000’s. It failed for numerous reasons. One important one was that many of these questions were not systematically asked by the trade or by MAC. The fragmentary, secretive and often hostile relations between the different players in the market chain added to the problem.

Our understanding of sustainability, climate change and need for cooperative development has changed since then. The needs are greater now, as are the opportunities for real and effective change. This paper focuses on the questions that need to be asked when trying to define sustainability.

Sustainable: A Definition

When most people talk about sustainability, it is usually limited to environmental sustainability. But is this truly all there is to being sustainable? Doesn’t a definition of sustainability need to reflect real world situations, real world problems and real world solutions? Human sourced problems and human driven solutions?

I consider an activity is sustainable if it is socially equitable, economically viable and environmentally bearable.

As we can see with this definition, however we look at sustainability, it requires three interlocked functioning areas to be able to be called sustainable: Environment, Social and Economic. These three sustainable functions have been pictured in many ways but one of the most common and simple ways is through the graphic below.

How does all this relate to fishing, specifically to the marine aquarium trade? We like to think that when we use the term a sustainable fishery we mean it is actually sustainable. We point out companies or countries or states where we believe fishery managers operate sustainably. We are wrong in every case. Let me tell you why I say this.

Your goal is to meet the three basic criteria of sustainability: social, environmental, and economic. If you meet one or two, you can’t be considered sustainable. You must meet all three. On the surface, it seems a difficult, if not impossible, task for any business to meet all three criteria. Indeed, given present conditions for the trade as a whole, it is almost impossible. Yet what if we target the individual parts of the markets chain? Or the parts of that chain where we act mainly as individuals? Now there are possibilities.

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