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.

Discerning the culture of compliance through recreational fisher’s perceptions of poaching.

By Luisa Gil Diaz, SRC intern

In a vast and endless ocean where regulation and enforcement can be difficult, marine protected areas represent oases where vulnerable species can have a reprieve from over fishing and other human activities. Of course, these protected areas are also created for the enjoyment of people too. The ocean can provide any number of recreational pursuits from scuba diving to fishing. Marine protected areas provide an environment in which these activities can be carried out safely and under regulations that protect the priceless marine park. However, what happens when people start violating these regulations? Why do they even do it in the first place? How can they be stopped? These are questions that researchers Brock Bergseth and Matthew Roscher address in their paper: Discerning the culture of compliance through recreational fisher’s perceptions of poaching.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world.

In their paper, Bergseth and Roscher address poaching and compliance behaviors in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Poaching is a specific type of fishing that occurs when species are illegally taken from protected areas. Because it is an illegal activity, poaching is a difficult subject to study and gather data on, so instead, the researchers went for a more indirect approach. Bergseth and Roscher used an interdisciplinary approach based on a concept in psychology called the theory of planned behavior to investigate people’s attitudes towards poaching as well as to see what motivates poachers in the first place. The theory of planned behavior states that there are three factors that make a person likely or unlikely to do something: 1. The individual’s personal attitude towards the behavior, 2. Societal pressures or attitudes associated with the behavior, and 3. The difficulty of actually carrying out the behavior. Bergseth and Roscher aimed to see how recreational fishers scored on these factors when related to poaching and compliance to the park’s regulations. They also wanted to determine how two other social phenomenons: pluralistic ignorance and false consensus, played a role in people’s perceptions about poaching. Pluralistic ignorance refers to when people think others perform illegal or unhealthy behaviors more than they themselves do, and false consensus is when an individual thinks everyone else also performs the behavior they do. These phenomenons are dangerous because they reinforce and encourage the illegal behavior.

As shown above, line fishing is one of the most popular types of fishing on the reef, but is prohibited in certain areas.

To gather data, the researchers surveyed 682 recreational fishers in the city of Townsville. Townsville was chosen because it has a large recreational fisher population and is the largest urban center located near the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. When approached, the participants were reassured that their responses were anonymous and for research purposes, not for law enforcement. To avoid any biased responses, words such as “illegal” or “poaching” were excluded.  The results from the study were interesting and encouraging. It was found that 9.7% of the fishers reported that they believed poaching occurred regularly. Interestingly, 13% of fishers reported personally knowing someone who poached, and their estimates for poaching were much higher.  Only 3% of participants admitted to poaching and they had the greatest estimate of non-compliance with the poaching rule. Most recreational fishers viewed poaching as personally and socially unacceptable, however, the small minority that is still poaching is creating a substantial impact on fish population. The data suggests that the phenomenon of pluralistic ignorance encourages individuals who are already poaching to continue poaching because they think more people than just them are doing it. It also suggests that individuals who personally know poachers are likely to become poachers themselves because they also share this view.

Townsville is off the coast of Queensland and is the largest urban center with direct access to the reef.

Important steps need to be taken to reduce poaching and stop new people from doing it. Recommended actions have included childhood education, outreach efforts, getting important community members to spread anti-poaching messages, and campaigns that highlight the marine park’s ability to catch and prosecute poachers. If these important steps are taken, not only will people be physically stopped from poaching, but over time, the misconceptions and attitudes that lead people to poach will be eradicated as well.

Works Cited

Bergseth, B. J., & Roscher, M. (2018). Discerning the culture of compliance through recreational fisher’s perceptions of poaching. Marine Policy.

Abrahamse, L. Steg, Social influence approaches to encourage resource conservation: a meta-analysis, Glob. Environ. Change 23 (2013) 1773–1785.

Suff, L. Deepsea.jpg. Digital image. N.p., 22 Aug. 2004. Web. 6 Mar. 2018.

NASA. GreatBarrierReef. Digital image. N.p., 26 Aug. 2000. Web. 6 Mar. 2018.

Townsville, Queensland. Digital image. N.p., 2016. Web. 6 Mar. 2018.