Ethics in fishkeeping


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So if you don’t know what ethics are, it would be a good idea to look up the definition before proceeding. What follows is sure to challenge the views some hold about fish keeping and may even “ruffle the feathers” of others.

How much do you think about the cichlids that you have? I mean, how much do you really think about them, not as pets but as living creatures that you purchased from somewhere or someone? Do you know where your fish came from? Were they wild caught or tank bred? If the former, does it bother you that you’re partially responsible for making a wild specimen captive? Just how much do you think about your fishes’ well-being and do you ask yourself if you’re doing what’s best for them? Are there reasons you keep cichlids other than to satisfy your entertainment needs? Do you tell yourself that they’re “just fish”? Do you wonder how many wild caught fish die before they ever make it to you?  Do you justify your fish keeping efforts as rescuing them from much worse conditions than you provide? Does it bother you when your cichlids die, especially if you’re ultimately the cause (e.g., poor tank conditions, poor tankmate choices)?

The answers to many of these questions are bounded by ethics. This post isn’t intended to criticize anyone for his/her decision to keep cichlids. It’s intended to convince you to be self-reflective about the choices and decisions that you make. 

I readily admit that I sometimes struggle with my own involvement in the hobby. In fact, my fishkeeping interest hasn’t always been continuous. There was a period when I questioned the ethics of it and halted my participation in the hobby. After all, I am restricting fish to a small space for the rest of their lives, not to mention that the space bears little real resemblance to their native environment, regardless of my efforts to emulate it. Even though none of my fish are F0 (wild caught in hobby parlance, which means all the fish I purchase are tank bred), they aren’t domesticated pets like cats and dogs. 

Sure, I could argue that because my fish are tank bred, they have known no other environment than one similar to what I provide them. So they really have never known anything other than living in a glass box or similar confined space. Does that make it okay? If no one ever purchased tropical fish (for the hobby, public aquariums, research, etc.), the fish would never have been bred in a tank to start with. The fact that I (and other hobbyists) provide a market for them is what allows them to be bred in aquaria and sold. The exact same reason some are wild caught and sold. Supply and demand. 

I won’t lie. Sometimes I watch my fish and wonder how their life would be different if they were in the wild with unlimited space to swim, explore, forage, breed, etc. It’s often a bit sobering to think about. Do I feel guilty? Sure, sometimes. Do I feel like I’m depriving a living creature a “better” or “normal” life. Sometimes. Are my fish bored, are they depressed or sad being confined to a limited space in which to live? Those are anthropomorphic concepts. However, cichlids are sentient. They feel pain, they experience fright, and they express other behaviors that humans relate to.  

Ultimately, my decision to keep them comes down to reconciling that the life I provide them may well be “better” than the one they would have otherwise (e.g., with another aquarist, in the wild). I consider myself a responsible aquarist and thus I don’t believe I contribute to a lesser existence for them. 

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