Marine Wildlife Trade

The wildlife trade is the commerce of wild plants, animals (living or dead), and products made from them around the globe. The wildlife trade is conducted both legally and illegally with illegal wildlife trafficking being the 3rd largest illegal trade after drugs and weapons worth between 10-20 billion USD annually.

The legal wildlife trade is regulated by the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) with 183 member countries whose aim is to ensure that trade does not threaten the survival of species in the wild. CITES currently regulates over 5,800 animal and 30,000 plant species.

The wildlife trade includes many products caught or harvested in the wild, sold legally and used in our everyday lives. It can become a problem when unregulated and illegal trade becomes unsustainable and threatens the survival of wild species.

The marine wildlife trade refers specifically to wild caught or harvested ocean plants and animals. The trade in live marine animals is estimated to include up to 30 million fish and 1.5 million coral colonies each year.

The marine wildlife trade is responsible for many products we use in our everyday lives; from food, pets, cosmetics, timber, medicines, and more. The products of some animals are used in many ways. For example, sharks are globally traded for their fins, meat, oils, skin, as souvenirs, and used in lip balms, sunscreen, anti-aging creams, and much more. Some other common marine animals and their uses are discussed below.

175 million fish for the aquarium trade are legally imported into the US each year (the largest importer of live aquarium fish) with thousands more illegal shipments intercepted. The saltwater aquarium trade began in the early 1930’s in Sri Lanka and grew into a multi-million dollar industry by the 1970’s. By 2011, 2300 fish species from 45 countries were included in the trade. The vast majority of these are wild caught as less than 15% of marine fish species have been successfully bred and raised in captivity and only a small percentage of these are commercially available.
The aquarium industry isn’t just about fish; corals, molluscs, and other marine species are involved. However, aquacultured corals are much more common than fish.

Traditional Medicine
Traditional medicine in Asia frequently uses marine animals to prepare powders, ointments, and other treatments for many ailments. Whether proven or unproven, the demand for these treatments is great. Sponges, corals, jellyfish, sea cucumbers, seahorses, and many more animals are traded for medicinal purposes. In Hong Kong alone, 75% of the trade in endangered wildlife products is for traditional Chinese medicine. The seahorse, for example, has been used to treat kidney ailments, circulatory problems and impotence for generations. Over 20,000,000 seahorses are harvested every year for 90 different health and medicine products. In Russia, caspian seals (with only 68,000 adults remaining) are killed and illegally traded for their blubber which is used as a cure for respiratory illnesses and has even been marketed as a treatment for Covid-19.

A large variety of marine products are traded both legally, and illegally, to be made into souvenirs and jewelry for purchase by unsuspecting tourists.

  • Coral: dead coral skeletons are used to make jewelry, picture frames, and other curios.
  • Giant clam shells: Clam shells have become a popular item as a substitute for ivory as it has become less available.
  • Sea turtle shells: Hawksbill shells are sold as “tortoiseshell” souvenirs around the world.
  • Seashells: Seashells from thousands of species of molluscs are traded whole or worked into jewelry or other souvenirs.
  • Queen conch: Conch shells and jewelry made from them are commonly sold to tourists


  • Conch: A very popular source of meat in the Caribbean although illegal to harvest in many areas
  • Abalone: Considered a seafood delicacy in China and other parts of Asia despite the population decline of 97% in certain regions.
  • Sea Cucumbers: In great demand in China and Southeast Asia as a culinary delicacy; usually eaten dried. The most rare species have seen a global population decline of more than 60%.

While much of the marine wildlife trade is legal and regulated to some degree, it can have detrimental effects on the marine ecosystems where these plants and animals live.

Once a demand is created, without proper enforcement or conservation consequences taken into account, resources can be exploited. For example, in India, despite it being illegal, to meet the growing demand for items made from seashells, facilities process between 30-100 tons of shells every month. The shells are removed from the ocean, with the animals still inside, and prepared to send to craftsmen as raw materials.

Endangered Species Trade
When overexploitation is allowed to go too far, the future of animal species can come into question. The critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle has seen a 90% decline in the last 100 years primarily due to their prized shell. The Napoleon wrasse, one of the largest reef fish, despite being endangered, is a delicacy in Hong Kong and China displaying social status of a host who serves it.

Method of Collection
Up to 70% of fish in the marine aquarium trade are illegally captured using cyanide. A sodium cyanide mixture is sprayed into the habitat which stuns the fish, making them easy to collect. However, surrounding organisms, including coral reef and other fish and plant life, often perish. Indeed, between ⅓ -½ of the target fish also die from the stress of the cyanide. Over 50% of wild caught aquarium fish have tested positive for cyanide exposure.

Disease transmission
The transport of wild plant and animal life around the planet aids in foreign pathogen transmission to native wildlife, livestock, and even people. In fact, 60% of known human diseases originated in animals.

Habitat Destruction
The excessive removal or destruction of native species has a long-term detrimental effect on the habitat. Without coral, the ecosystem that depends on the reef to reproduce, feed, and shelter, is also negatively impacted. When seashells are removed from the environment, the ecological roles they play are affected: an anchorage for algaes, food for other marine life, shelter for crustaceans, etc.

Be a Responsible Aquarium Owner
Find out where your aquarium fish and creatures come from. Be responsible when sourcing animals for your tank. When possible, buy farmed corals or other species over wild collected one. Download the app Tank Watch: Good Fish/Bad Fish to help determine which fish are reef and wildlife friendly.

Be a Responsible Consumer
Research the source of natural products you buy to ensure you’re not contributing to the demand for wildlife products. Don’t hesitate to ask: What is this product made of? Where did this product come from? When in doubt, don’t buy. The Wildlife Trafficking Alliance encourages us to “Be informed, buy informed.”

Use Your Voice
Call your legislators, write letters, attend rallies, spread the message, be a voice for wildlife. Let policy-makers know that you are concerned about the international wildlife trade and its contribution to biodiversity loss.

The wildlife trade extends far beyond marine life. It is a huge global issue for the protection of biodiversity. Some organizations working to educate the public and stop trafficking are below.

Please check out these (and others), spread the word, and lend your support however you can.

Shark Guardian
Wildlife Trafficking Alliance
Conservation International
World Wildlife Fund

Illegal Wildlife Trade Exhibit, Niagara Falls, USA
After the border seizure of a critically endangered Asian arowana fish at the US-Canada border, the Aquarium of Niagara was inspired to create an illegal wildlife trade to increase awareness of the issue.

Illegal Wildlife Trader Arrested, Penang, Malaysia
Although not specifically about the marine wildlife trade, this story of the power of public awareness and how it can make real change, is inspirational.