Bryce Risley: SMS grad student focuses on future of marine ornamental species trade in a changing world

The first day that snow fell in December 2017, Bryce Risley boarded a plane headed for the sandy, palm tree-lined coasts of Sri Lanka.

During winter break, the graduate student in the School of Marine Sciences conducted fieldwork focused on the marine ornamental species trade, more broadly referred to as the aquarium trade.

The trade — globally worth hundreds of millions of dollars — delivers species to public aquariums worldwide and to specialty retail stores where the public can purchase live fish, coral and invertebrates to stock their personal home aquariums.

Risley grew up in New Mexico, more than 630 miles from the nearest beach in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. Inspired by his grandparents, who promoted education and outreach as docents at Albuquerque Biological Park, Risley began keeping fresh and saltwater fish as a hobbyist at age 14.

Some of his first jobs included working retail at local fish stores. While earning his bachelor’s degree in geography at the University of New Mexico, Risley worked full time as an aquarist at the Albuquerque aquarium. Now, he’s exploring the totality of the supply chain of this trade — from its impacts on reef health to the communities of people who derive their livelihoods by diving to capture wild animals.

“The stories being told about the plight of coral reefs around the world are important, and we need to keep telling these stories,” says Risley. “These stories often focus on environmental ailments, like rising ocean temperatures resulting in mass beaching events, ocean acidification, coastal development and pollution, sedimentation, deoxygenation, coral-eating starfish, and irresponsible fishing practices, all resulting in the degradation of these ecosystems.”

But those stories often don’t mention communities whose livelihoods are connected to the reefs, says Risley.

fish collector with shrimp
Photo courtesy of Bryce RisleyAn ornamental fish collector holds a bag of scarlet cleaner shrimp.

“How are these dependents coping with a deteriorating environment? What are they observing? How are they adapting? And what, if anything, are these communities and their governments prepared to do to preserve these resources,” he asks.

For this interdisciplinary study, the dual master’s degree student in marine policy and marine biology works with SMS faculty Aaron Strong and Nishad Jayasundara to answer those questions. His studies are conducted in collaboration with the University of Ruhuna, Sri Lanka and the THEME Institute, a nonprofit based in Sri Lanka.

Risley examines organisms on coral reefs and the people who depend on coral reefs to make a living. In Sri Lanka, he’s met with exporters, divers who collect reef fish, academics, and government officials to learn more about the trade.

Managing reef fisheries, Risley says, requires consideration of coral reef ecology as well as stakeholder interactions — with diverse reef habitat resources, government agencies, communities, nongovernment organizations and activist groups.

He says considering the adaptability of each of these variables is essential to understand what the future of reef habitats, and those who interact with them, will be like.

To understand sustainability and resilience of Sri Lankan marine ornamental fisheries, Risley says considerations include: turbid water along nearshore reefs coupled with excessive weather events that prohibit fishers from accessing reefs; highly sedimented and degraded reef habitats littered with discarded fishing gear and plastic waste; fishers collecting keystone species; and exporters’ pessimism about the future of the local trade.

Risley also is assisting Jayasundara by designing a lab at UMaine to breed a species of clownfish from chosen reef sites in Sri Lanka, and examining the species’ physiological tolerance. He’ll seek to identify certain characteristics that may indicate its adaptability to thermal and other stressors in reef habitats.

“Understanding how reef species are responding to changes in their environments as they cope with and adapt to climate change, pollution and other environmental perturbations will allow us to anticipate, and potentially manage, what future reef ecosystems will look like,” Risley says.

“In the marine ornamental species trade, this could change how and from where aquaculturists chose broodstock. If species reintroduction to reef habitats becomes a future goal, we may be able to identify robust populations of fish which have the physiological capacity to survive on future reefs.”

This summer, Risley will return to Sri Lanka for additional fieldwork. He’ll also meet marine ornamental importers in Los Angeles to check the pulse of the trade with stakeholders at the receiving end of the supply chain.

Contact: Aaron Strong, 207.581.4336