Should we keep fish at all?

Lets start by getting right into the nitty-gritty of our hobby.

Should we, human beings, keep (and keep being the operative word,) any fish at all, or should they all be left in the wild?

I’ve kept fish for 35 of my 40 years, and consider myself a fishkeeping addict. I’ve tried to kick the habit a few times, and during my few wobbles, one of the ways I tried to wean myself off fish was to question the morality of the whole thing.

Lets look at the pros and cons…


Keeping fish is said to be relaxing, and could also be considered a safe haven for fish versus the rigours of life in the wild.

Some species now survive only in captivity, in ex-situ conservation programmes. Their natural habitat destroyed, removed, or polluted, or themselves over fished, predated or out competed by invasive species.

Some fish live longer in captivity, and don’t have the natural pressures of finding food and avoiding predators. Some species like goldfish and guppies are more numerous in captivity than they ever would be in the wild, so in a bizarre twist, their popularity and line-bred bright colours have ensured not only survival of the species within the overdeveloped world of man, they are actually thriving and more populous (and thus safer,) than they ever were without us.

Fishkeeping is a pretty tame hobby too. Its safer than motorcycling or skydiving, no one really gets hurt, and spouses can be safe in the knowledge that although your attention is elsewhere, you are home, and not getting up to anything you shouldn’t be.

Fishkeeping teaches geography, lots of different sciences, and encourages teaching about life, death, feeding, breeding and the wider natural world. An aquarium can enhance your home and you can involve others, be it family members, or meet and make friends online and in stores, and in social media.

Fishkeeping is a cool hobby!


A wild fish isn’t really ours to keep in the first place. They run their daily gauntlet of finding food, avoiding predators and ensuring the survival of their species and they don’t need us disadvantaging them further by catching them, depleting their natural numbers, and never returning them. Hard to catch with our teeth or bare hands, we cheat by using nets, hooks or other means to tame these masters of their natural environment.

Fish shouldn’t live in aquariums, and proof of this is them banging into the invisible glass, looking and behaving visibly stressed, jumping out, and dying from lack of oxygen or ammonia poisoning without intervention from us and endless equipment and potions.

There isn’t really such a thing as an ecosystem aquarium, with a perfectly round nitrogen cycle whereby plants and bacteria filter the water, feed on the fish waste, oxygenate, and then fish eat the plants in some lovely, utopian dream. Instead you have to feed them, water change them, remove, and break down their waste. Nutrients aren’t perfectly cycled and the wrong nutrients build up, while vitamins and amino acids decrease. The result is a decidedly imbalanced “natural” aquarium.

Many fish don’t grow to the size in aquaria that they do in the wild and although some are long-lived, many are short-lived compared to their wild counterparts, due to inadequate diet, stress, pollution and other factors that, when added up, make many fish species (maybe all fish species,) poor aquarium inhabitants.

“You wouldn’t like it if I did it to you!” a comment from many a non-fishkeeper, may seem naive, uneducated and downright wrong, but on balance it’s probably right, we don’t like being imprisoned, enslaved and having every single part of our survival controlled.

There is something incredibly controlling and god-like about fishkeeping, where by if you don’t feed, filter and oxygenate your captives they will simply die, and if you forget to feed them or become complacent about their care, they just have to put up with it.

Should we, shouldn’t we?

We can keep fish, and so we do. We don’t need to, although many who do find it very rewarding. I eat fish, I keep fish, and I fish, so I am very much in the user and abuser camp, but like I said in the pros section, there are worse things I could be doing, and believe it or not, I am an avid observer and hopefully one day conserver of the natural world.

Fishkeeping is my hobby, my career and a huge part of my life. I admit to finding fish and their care much more simple to understand and accommodate than Homo sapiens, so I’m definitely in the Pro camp. It could be considered cruel and selfish, although I’ve met many very

clown fish swimming
Photo by crisdip on

well-meaning, caring people over the years who try their utmost to do everything they can for their beloved fish.

Long live fishkeeping!


Jeremy Gay

Author of three fishkeeping books and lifelong fishkeeper. Experience includes editor of Practical Fishkeeping magazine, editor of Pet Product Marketing magazine, multi award- winning livestock manager and aquatic store manager.