The trade in coral reef fish started in the 1930s in Sri Lanka and the Philippines and became commercially viable in the 1950s. In the 1970s it turned into a million dollar industry. Fisheries started spreading everywhere in the tropics. Nowadays, about 50 countries contribute to the market. Indonesia and the Philippines are the most important exporters, while the USA, Europe and Japan are the strongest importers.

Worldwide, about 2 million people own a marine aquarium and there are around 1,000 public aquariums. Additionally, zoos, shops and restaurants own aquariums.

Of the over 2,000 traded species only about 1 per cent can be bred.

The UN estimates that about 24 million coral fish, 12 million stony corals and half a million soft corals as well as 10 million invertebrates (mostly molluscs, shrimps and anemones) are traded,.

International trade statistics are based on voluntary data provided by dealers. There are enormous discrepancies between export and import figures on coral fish: Exporters claim that 43 per cent of coral fish came from the Philippines, yet importers say they have no information on the origin of 81 per cent of the fish.

The total industry (including construction materials, wages etc.) has been estimated by the FAO to be worth around 15 billion USD, with the marine ornamental fish’s value at 90 million USD alone.