Ornamental Fish

Fish are not ornaments… by using the adjective “ornamental” scant respect is given to them.

Neither can fish be classified as pets. Freedom NOT captivity, is what their birthright.

Showcasing “rare fish from across the globe” is unfortunately a growing trend. Hundreds of species along with as many aquatic plants are displayed at “Aqua Life” exhibitions in different cities organised by commercial dealers and so-called hobbyists who claim to be promoting “ecologically balanced aquariums”. They display and sell scores of different fish breeds ranging from the rare Red Dragon Flower Horn to the common gold fish. Not only are fish such as African Cichlids, Blue Ram Cichlid, Alligator Gar, Angels, Platinum Angel, Arowana, Asian Arowana, Red-tail Golden Arowana, Red Chill Arowana, Red Snakehead, Archer fish, Black Ghost Knife, Clown, Damsel, Doctor-fish, Giant Gourami, Invertebrates, Jelly Fish, Koi Carp, Lionfish, Lobsters, Oscar, Pacu Fish, Shrimps, Sting Ray and Tiger Shark but also birds like Macaws are exhibited.

Aqua Technology Park

Kerala Aqua Ventures International Limited (KAVIL) was inaugurated in January 2010. It is located in a semi-urban area called Kadungallur, about 30 kilometres from Kochi International Airport. This Rs 80 million project, popularly known as Aqua Technology Park, aims to breed ornamental fish for export.

They are currently bred at six hubs, or breeding shelters. Breeding is yet to commence here, so small fish are flown in from Kolkata. They could have been captured from the wild or culture bred, we don’t know. But what we do know is that they are kept in glass, aquarium-type fish tanks. These fish are intended for distribution for homestead farming among individuals and societies registered with KAVIL – once registration starts. After a period of home farming, or after the fish reach a desired size, KAVIL plans to take them back at prices fixed in consideration of variables like their quality, age, size and health, for export marketing.


In addition to Kerala, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra have been promoting ornamental fish farming in India.

Unfortunately it has become a household trade in West Bengal with an estimated 5,000 Women’s Self Help Groups and 150 Women’s Fisher Co-operative Societies in West Bengal are involved in breeding ornamental fish in cemented tanks in their backyards and selling the fish direct to customers. Live bearers such as guppy, platy, molly and swordtail, are bred and subsequently reared; while the egg layers such as angel, barbs, goldfish, tetra and catfishes are reared after procurement of their seed.

One may ask if it ethical to start an ornamental fish hatchery to provide means of livelihood to villagers occupying the mangrove belt in exchange for mangrove conservation as is happening in Maharshtra.

BWC thinks not. But the facility containing different species of clown fish (Percula, Ocellaris, Tomato, Shunk and Fire Clown) was inaugurated at the Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Centre, Airoli by the Maharashtra Forest Minister on World Environment Day 2019. The fish will be sold to women from the fishing community across Maharashtra who will be required to rear them for two months after which they will sell them at a profit.

Dead en route

The ornamental fish business has an annual global turnover of $4.5 billion, and growing fast. The demand for aquarium fish is from Europe, the Gulf and South-East Asian countries. Indian ornamental fish are exported to USA, Europe, Russia and Japan. KAVIL has already procured orders from France, Italy, Korea and Hong Kong. The company hopes to capture 10 percent of the world market in 8 years.

The volume of internal and export trade gives an idea of the billions of small fish involved. But how many millions die in transit from breeder to seller to buyer is any one’s guess. They are transported in small plastic bags with minimum water and little air. (Luckily the ban on use of such plastic bags in Maharashtra adversely affected them.) The water often contains a blue-coloured tranquilizing agent that is used to keep them calm as they suffer tremendously through stressful, bumpy, and often days-long journeys. It is a common practice to claim replacements for the numbers that are found dead upon arrival due to lack of speed and safety in transit. In fact, for traders of fish aquariums and their accessories, replacement is easier than going through the trouble of trying to cure sick fish.

Some times children come home from birthday parties with fish in plastic bags or jars. Parents are advised
to return the gift immediately, but not without politely explaining why. By accepting fish to be kept in captivity, children can not learn to have reverence for life. First fish, then scant respect for bigger animals, can easily progress to no respect for human beings.

Literally “Painted” Fish and “New Age Pets”

There was a time when birds were literally painted and exported as “painted finches”. Now it is fish that are dyed and few realise that the word “painted” is literal. They are either injected with dye or coloured by dipping them into a mild acid solution to dissolve their natural slime coat. The few that survive this process are painted with semi-permanent fluorescent dyes after which they are placed into an irritant so that they regenerate their slime coat. The practice of painting fish has nearly eliminated the availability of the unpainted variety.

Taiwan produces and exports more than 80% of its aqua. They genetically modify fish, for example, no more than two centimetre-long fluorescent fish have genes of jelly fish and coral inserted into them, and are internationally marketed in small aquariums for children. Fancy and unusual “new age pets” like fairy mermaids with human like faces and long tails, command prices higher than a gram of gold. The “blue velvet shrimp” with a turquoise coloured glow was bred from the popular Rili shrimp which has a transparent body and a red head. Another engineered breed is the “chocolate shrimp” a cross between tiger- bee- and aboriginal Taiwan- shrimp species, is claimed to have taken six to seven years to stabilise genes to produce this dark-brown coloured creature.

Thus, for the sake of commercial gain countless lives are put through immense torture.

As if this was not bad enough, starting 2013 there were several international petitions (supported by BWC) including one by Avaaz to stop live animal jewellery in the form of key-chains, lucky charms and amulets in China. It is an unimaginable extreme form of cruelty: live fish, tiny soft-shelled turtles, small lizards or amphibians are encased in plastic with “crystallized oxygen and nutrients designed to keep the animals alive” but they can not and do not live long. Over and above which customers are advised to microwave and eat the creatures after they die.

Trauma and Suffering

First and foremost, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Biology revealed that scientists from the James Cook University, Queensland, Australia, found that fish become stressed and lose weight if they are separated from each other, hampering their chances of survival. They felt that shoaling fish gain a calming effect from living in a group.

Separating them is definitely mean. Insensitive humans keep fish in bowls or tanks. The newer acrylic contraptions are half-round 10 inches in diameter and mounted on walls, not made of glass and displayed on tables or stands. It is shameful to make children grow up witnessing their suffering: fish (and water plants) kept in tanks at home quite often die either due to neglect of not being fed, or as the pump that circulates fresh water in the tank has stopped functioning during power cuts. Bone char is used in aquarium filters to remove fluoride from the water.

Feng Shui recommends keeping brightly coloured Arowana gold fish in multiples of nine for “prosperity and growth”. (Chilli Red Arowana are sold for as much as Rs 1 lakh.) Makes one wonder how people can experience good luck and get wealth at the cost of torturing innocent lives. They are small, but feel as much pain and can suffer just like us. The latest standard practice in Singapore is subjecting the Asian Arowana to cosmetic surgery by giving it an eye lift. After being knocked out, using forceps the tissue behind the fish’s eye is loosened and the eyeball is pushed into the socket. Arowana fish also known as king of the fish, emperor of the tank, and a dragon among mere mortals, are kept by the wealthy to flaunt status.

Complete aquariums are cheaply available. No wonder we see so many fish tanks in business premises – even those run by strict religious vegetarians who are probably unaware that bone char is used as a chemical filter. They do not realise and more importantly do not want to know about the trauma the poor fish undergo. Someone tells them that keeping a fish tank will enhance their wealth and so they go in for it unthinkingly. For example, 1-foot long Arrowanas are kept in small tanks measuring just 3x4 feet, and shockingly goldfish are fed to them. Luckily typical spherical fish bowls are not seen that often. As they provide insufficient oxygen for fish and cause them to go blind, they have been banned in Italy. However, fish tanks 24x12x12 inches in size, are commonly seen; the smallest hold no more than 11 litres of water – captivity, no different to a jail. Not being able to swim far and wide they do not grow to their full potential and so remain stunted. They are subjected to unnatural food, temperatures, lighting and water which make them susceptible to numerous contagious diseases.

The fish get confused by the glass walls of the tanks they are imprisoned in and, unable to recognize them as barriers, move forward sustaining facial injuries by bumping on the glass. They often die due to neglect, not being fed regularly, too much or too little sunlight, or because the pump that circulates fresh water in the tank stops functioning during power cuts. The pump itself is stress causing.

In 2010 upon getting to know that the Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre Hotel placed a solitary gold fish bowl on the table of customers who came in alone to their coffee shop, BWC wrote to them saying that they may be doing it unthinkingly, not realising the cruelty involved, and pointed out the trauma inflicted upon the fish which feel pain and suffer like we do. They responded in a positive manner saying they had discontinued the practise. We then requested that they also stop maintaining a fish tank and return the fish to the shop from which they bought them.

Likewise in April 2013, BWC wrote to Spoonful Of Soul, a restaurant in Gurgaon, requesting that they not place fish bowls as centre pieces on their café tables.

In September 2016, BWC managed to convince the Jindal Naturecure Institute at Bengaluru to stop keeping an aquarium. We supplied detailed factual information regarding the unknown and unnoticed suffering fish were subjected to and also pointed out that all aquariums emit negativity, something that a nature cure centre would not want at their hospital. The authorities therefore released the gold fish into a pond on their campus. This pond contained another species of fish (black) and it has been observed that luckily both are surviving together Okay.

People who no longer want to keep their fish tanks face a dilemma because they are not sure what the ethical thing to do is. Killing is not an option of course. Releasing them in a lake or river could very likely result in harming the ecosystem. It is absolutely undesirable to buy ornamental fish and release them into streams because it adversely impacts them and native fish. Gold fish released in Australia’s Vasse river have known to thrive and grow up to 16 inches and turn from pets to pests. Giving them to a rehabilitation centre where they are taken care of till they naturally die is the best thing to do under the circumstances, but may not be possible due to lack of such a facility. An option (although not that good) is to give the fish back to the shop from which they were originally bought.

In 2018 Aquarium de Paris created a “refuge” for unwanted goldfish so that they are not flushed down the toilet. The goldfish are medically taken care of and after keeping them for a month in quarantine they are released in a giant tank where they are put on display. As long as the people do not replace their given away pets with new fish it may turn out to be a satisfactory option.

Cruelty-free Fish Figurines and Virtual Fish Tanks

For those who have faith and hope in Feng Shui, it is said that fish figurines work just as well as the real fish, so then wouldn’t it be simpler and humane to display nine of these instead?

Virtual fish tanks and aquariums are the latest “alternatives” to keeping live fish in tanks or visiting aquariums. Digital fish are brought to life in elaborate 3D settings online.

Self Certification for Premium Prices

With an aim to further boost export, in 2011 the Marine Products Export Development Authority issued guidelines for so-called green certification or eco-labelling of freshwater ornamental fishes, similar to the existing code of practices for marine ornamental fishes. The guidelines cover collection of ornamental fish from the wild, their handling, holding facilities, culture of species and facilities for export, including information about the way fish is handled at various stages of the chain of custody. The criteria for the certification (with logo) claims to ensure environment and socio-economic sustainability in trade of the product, and also guarantees quality, safety and traceability which is turn is said to enhance value and consumer acceptance. The aim: consumer acceptability at premium prices. In short, green certification is but a gimmick which helps exporters of ornamental fish to earn more.

In 1996 the Denison barb found in the fast flowing streams of the Western Ghats in Kerala was first exported to Germany. Estimates suggest that a decade later this species accounted for 65% of India’s total annual exports of ornamental fish.

The threats to ornamental fish:
* Exported: 114 species
* Endemic: 44 species
* Critically endangered: 11 species
* Endangered: 24 species

Other threats to freshwater fish:
* Habitat loss due to development/urbanisation
* Shrinking water bodies
* Dams and hydel projects that alter the habitat
* Industrial effluents result in deteriorating water quality

About 90% of the freshwater fish sold in stores are raised on fish farms. Goldfish, for example, are usually bred in giant tubs on farms that raise as many as 250 million fish a year. Many of them are doomed to live in tiny glass bowls which provide neither the space nor oxygen that goldfish need.

Approximately 95% of the saltwater fish sold in pet shops are captured from the wild, mostly from the Pacific Islands. Fish divers often squirt cyanide or other poisons into the coral reefs where the fish live. Cyanide is used to stun fish so that they will drift out of the reef for easy collection; it also sends many fish into spasms, making them easy to grab by hand or net. Marine experts estimate that 50% of the affected fish die on the reef itself, and 40% of those who survive the initial poisoning die before they reach an aquarium.


The National Fisheries Development Board as part of its “other activities” under the Blue Revolution has declared plans to breed and rear inland ornamental fishes and plants, as well as fabrication of aquariums, and artificial reefs or fish aggregating devices, in the seas.

The aquarium market has become a very promising sector. The value of the worldwide sale is estimated at US$900 million wholesale and US$3 billion in retail trade. Given the strong economic potential for rural employment, aquaculture and aquarium fish trade is increasingly supported by governments.

When it comes to money, man hardly uses reason or compassion. It is an established fact that human greed for money and control is endless and the new fad is taking its toll on fish. And that too, literally without any noise made from the victim, the fish. The exploitation, cruelty and suffering in the ornamental fish trade is largely going unnoticed and no cries are heard – as we are dealing with a quiet sufferer, small in size, so that even in death it is easy to dispose of.

In 2010 the Government of India had come out with Draft Pet Shop Rules in which fish were included, however, fish were totally omitted and not covered at all in the 2016 draft rules which were again open to public suggestions and comments (submitted by BWC both times). BWC felt that the removal of fish from these rules encouraged the cruel capture, breeding, raising, transporting, trading and keeping of ornamental fish because the Draft Aquarium Fish Breeding Rules which were ready had not notified.

The spring 2017 issue of Compassionate Friend focused on the following facts, soon after which in May 2017 the Government of India gazetted the Aquarium and Fish Tank Animals Shop Rules, 2017, under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act:

In the absence of any rules a fish can be kept in solitary confinement. They can be touched, petted,
frozen or flushed down a toilet. Fish can be coloured artificially by injecting chemical dyes in their delicate bodies so that they serve a decorative purpose in a public place. No rules govern this trade. They can be caught using drugs. The numbers of what is often considered an innocuous trade is very large.

There is a sign at every pet shop that goods (read live fish) once sold will not be taken back. The turnover due to fish dying would be advantageous to the shop owner. Since the customer has already invested in a fish tank and other costly equipment, s/he is more likely to replace the fish in order to salvage the money spent earlier.

Pet shop owners have very little knowledge of fish care and whatever little they have, they hardly consider it important enough to pass onto the customers. Most of the fish care therefore happens by trial and error method, here the error resulting in death of the fish. Pet shop owners regularly feed antibiotics to fish since their intention is only to keep fish alive till sold. Most of them do not know who to deal with overcrowding, disease and fish fighting. They have very poor knowledge about how many times the fish needs to be fed, what the fish behaviour indicates, etc.

Fish are often referred to as “products” by those in the business. For example, many exotic ones like Asian Arowanas and Kois are imported from Indonesia and Malaysia, and Cichlids from South America and Africa. It is surprising that even when fish worth lakhs die, people who run the business do not close down. They continue to lure people citing good luck should they set up waterfall tanks with 3D background and put in expensive exotic fish costing lakhs of rupees.

Beauty Without Cruelty earnestly appeals to children and adults not to ever patronise exhibitions, stalls, shops that breed or sell fish. Not even visit to simply see fish like the Flower Horn, 20% of which are said to grow a big head. Remember, ornamental fish are specially bred for commercial gain with scant respect for their lives.

Page last updated on 12/02/22