Globally, 6 million coral reef fishers provide ~25% of emergent countries’ catch, but species have low value. The marine aquarium trade (MAT) targets high-value biodiversity, but missing data amplify draconian governance and demand for international prohibition. To stimulate sustainability and reef conservation investment, we generate a fiscal baseline using the first global analysis of numbers, diversity, and biomass of MAT-traded organisms. Each year, ~55 million organisms worth US$2.15 billion at retail are traded comparable with major fisheries, e.g., tuna. A sustainable MAT also requires overexploitation assessments. We identify 25 species/genera with “Extremely High” risk ratios and place the Indonesian and Sulu-Celebes Seas in the highest exploitation category. Despite predicted hobbyist number increases, unabated reef degradation and low governance will transform the MAT into an aquaculture-dominated industry decoupled from communities (i.e., culture located in importing countries). A “MAT-positive” future requires evidence-based management/governance, consumer education, and sustainable practice incentivization but can address the biodiversity and social and economic inequality crises.