Mitigating the illegal trade of aquarium species through the postal service in a Brazilian state

By Elana Rusnak, SRC masters student

The global aquarium trade is a multimillion dollar business, moving over one billion freshwater and marine organisms annually.  In many countries, regulations are put in place in order to manage both the type of species, as well as the number of individuals that cross each border.  However, there are illegal activities plaguing the trade, including in businesses within the United States.  In other countries however, there are frequently fewer and/or less regulated laws that dictate the sale and trade of marine organisms.  Between 2010-2012 in the Ceará state in Brazil, researchers worked together with the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) and the Brazilian Post and Telegraph Company (ECT) to comb through packages sent via the postal service, and confiscate those containing live or dead aquarium organisms.  It is illegal in Brazil to sell or trade organisms outside of pre-sanctioned shipping companies, and the researchers aimed to assess where inspections need to be strengthened in order to prevent continued criminal activities.

In total, there were 57 confiscated packages, with roughly half going to Ceará, and half going to other Brazilian states, with no international shipping.  The majority of the packages going to and leaving from Ceará state were going to the southeastern region of the country, with the leading state being São Paulo. This is likely because it is the richest and most populous state, which would incur a demand for aquarium species in both the legal and illegal trade.

Figure 1: Map of Brazilian states   [By Golbez [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

There were a wide range of both native and non-native marine and freshwater species being smuggled, with corals and freshwater fish being represented the most.  In the confiscated packages, they found specimens that came from both natural (wild) and aquaculture (captive breeding) sources.  A large proportion of the species also came from non-native sources, which raises the issue of invasive species and introducing foreign diseases and pathogens into unprepared environments.  The high occurrence of exotic species can be partially attributed to hobbyists releasing fish they can no longer take care of into the environment.  Moreover, many of the species confiscated were also classified as Vulnerable or Endangered, which should only be collected for either scientific or conservation purposes. This provides very strong evidence that Brazilian environmental authorities need to increase the strength and enforcement of regulations and inspection efforts in order to protect species at risk.

Figure 2:  The barber goby (Elacantinus figaro), one of the Vulnerable species frequently found in the confiscated packages.  By Rzpguimaraes – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

However, in response to confiscation of illegal packages and consequently, sending out fines, smugglers’ efforts decreased.  Future management suggestions include increasing the training for spotting suspect packages and having management officers familiarize themselves with the species they encounter so they are better identified and logged. They also suggest increasing the fines that smugglers have to pay for each specimen, as the penalty is not high enough to deter illegal activities.

Awareness and training can go a long way, and hopefully with the proper motivation, can discourage the illegal aquarium trade to such an extent that it will one day cease to exist.  Until then, small steps like those taken in Ceará state will encourage its decline and provide evidence that the smuggling of aquarium species could be mitigated in Brazil.

Works cited

Gurjão, L. M., Barros, G. M., Lopes, D. P., Machado, D. A., & Lotufo, T. M. (2018). Illegal trade of aquarium species through the Brazilian postal service in Ceará State. Marine and Freshwater Research69(1), 178-185.

Marine Biota and The Well Being of Humans

By Melissa Soto, SRC Intern

A small dose of nature can go a long way. Studies show that exposure to nature has a significant calming and stress reducing effect on humans. A recent study published in the United Kingdom examined how people’s behavior, physiological, and psychological reactions varied when exposed to an aquarium. The researchers recorded the participant’s reactions when the aquarium was unstocked (meaning no marine life), partially stocked (some marine life), and fully stocked (with plenty of marine life).

Previous research suggests that humans inherently want to be surrounded by nature. Taking place in the United Kingdom’s National Marine Aquarium, researchers wanted to see how much time people would spend in front of the large restocking exhibit along with any stress and emotional changes people experienced at the three stages of restocking.

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There are three main ways to determine stress recovery with the assistance of nature. They are the Biophilia Hypothesis, the Psychophysiological Stress Recovery Theory (PSRT), and Attention Restoration Theory (ART). Biophilia is the emotional connection humans have with nature, PRST says humans are predisposed to react positively to nature, and ART suggests that mental irritability and distraction can be reduced with a nature setting. Although these three theories apply, ART is the one that worked best with this experiment as there are four parts. Fascination, being away, extent, and compatibility all resemble what people experienced as they view an aquarium. Here are the direct examples for these four components. 1. People were fascinated as they viewed the marine life 2. The everyday setting of their life was removed 3. They had the opportunity to be educated 4. They choose to visit the exhibit.

The scientists created three different hypotheses’ and explore them. The first was to see if voluntary exposure time would reflect intrinsic fascination and be positively correlated with the level of biota present within the exhibit. Second, there would be a positive relationship between psychophysiological responses and viewing the exhibit when it contained marine life. The final hypothesis was to see if longer exposure time to the exhibit would improve psychophysiological responses.

The participants entered the aquarium and stood in front of the exhibit when it was unstocked, partially stocked and fully stocked. Each participant stood alone while the aquarium transitioned into the different conditions. Measurements were taken twice weekly at different times of the day. Following this, the participant’s psychological mood was measured based on a “The Feeling Scale”. The scale showed whether the participants had a positive mood with high arousal, negative mood with high arousal, positive mood and low arousal or negative mood with low arousal.

Participants then made their way from the aquarium into a room where their blood pressure and heart rate was monitored. Blood pressure and heart rate monitoring was conducted for a total of five-minutes. Measurements were taken at the two-minute mark and at the five minute mark.

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The results of this study showed that the participants stayed in front of the exhibit longest when it contained the highest level of marine life further supporting Hypothesis 1. The more biota allowed for more interest and willingness to watch. Hypothesis 2 and 3 were weaker but did show significant blood pressure and heart rate drops demonstrating that the exposure was calming and physiologically restorative.

Although this study was unsuccessful in determining a measurable effect on elevated stress, it did find new data to add to past studies. Overall, the participants left the aquarium feeling relaxed, in a positive mood, and slightly aroused. It also showed that an individual does not need to spend a long time in front of the exhibit, just five minutes, to gain significant benefits.



Cracknell, D., White, M., Pahl, S., Nichols, W., Depledge, M. (2015). Marine biota and psychological well-being: a preliminary examination of dose-response effects in an aquarium setting. Environment and Behavior, 1-28. doi: 10.1177/0013916515597512