Heading into the 2015 legislative session last month, many predicted pesticide buffer zones, extending the rail tax and medical marijuana dispensaries would dominate the debate at the Capitol.

That’s held true for the most part, but a dark horse emerged Wednesday. Well, technically a fish.

People spent all morning packed in a conference room waiting their turn to comment on proposals to restrict aquarium fishing and improve protections for those who pluck critters out of the ocean among other measures being considered.

Legislative Analyst from Representative Kaniela Ing’s office carry’s a large pile of written testimony at room #325 today.  11 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Mary Pham, a legislative analyst for Rep. Kaniela Ing, carries a stack of testimony about aquarium fishingWednesday at the Capitol.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The House Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs, chaired by Rep. Kaniela Ing, received more than 4,000 pages of testimony on the six bills scheduled for the hearing.

By contrast, a bill to establish disclosure requirements for outdoor applications of pesticides near schools and create buffer zones for sensitive areas — a huge issue for people concerned about the chemicals sprayed by GMO seed companies — received just over 660 pages of testimony when it was heard last week.

Ing said after the more than five-hour hearing Wednesday that aquarium fishing is a divisive issue — both in the community and politically — but the marathon meeting was a healthy step forward.

“We all value our reefs as a natural resource, as a main attraction for tourists and for subsistence,” he said. “But it’s clear now that people value it for different reasons.”

Representative Kaniela Ing in tropical fish testimony.  4000 testifiers.  11 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum

Rep. Kaniela Ing, chair of the committee, listens to testimony during a more than five-hour hearing.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The discussion was at some points about business, other times about conservation.

Some fear additional restrictions on aquarium fishing would hurt the industry and cost jobs. Scuba companies are worried about the same end result, but are on the opposite side for obvious reasons.

Meanwhile, others aren’t concerned about the economics. Many testified that fish simply don’t belong in tanks in people’s homes and removing them from the ocean harms ecosystems.

“It almost felt like half the room was speaking in a different language than the other half,” Ing said. “The depth and breadth of the testimony was pretty impressive.”

These types of issues can be difficult for legislators to deal with, he said, but it’s necessary.

“The truth won’t reveal itself and the tension is only getting worse,” Ing said.

Representative Cindy Evans tropical fish testimony. 11 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rep. Cindy Evans holds a piece of testimony during the hearing.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The issue culminated in a high-profile incident last May involving an aquarium collector ripping the regulator out of the mouth of an environmentalist, Rene Umberger, who was filming him. She heads a group on Maui called For the Fishes.

The underwater scuffle off the Kona coast, caught on camera, led to a terroristic threatening charge against Jay Lovell, who will stand trial next week.

“Before it gets worse we have to find some type of solution,” Ing said. “Sometimes it takes these bold measures to get everyone at the table.”

The bills being considered range from proposals to place a 10-year moratorium on the taking of any aquarium fish (House Bill 606) to banning the selling of any fish subjected to cruel treatment (House Bill 833). Another bill, House Bill 873, simply bans the sale of aquatic life for aquarium purposes. While House Bill 511 proposes more protections for fishermen of all types.

Committee members have been talking about amendments to form some type of compromise.

“We are taking the time to carefully review all the available information so that we can make the best decision going forward,” OMH Vice Chair Nicole Lowen said in a release. “The latest report from the Department of Land and Natural Resources does show an overall increase in fish populations in West Hawaii in recent years, but it also cautions that allowing the aquarium industry to expand could eventually harm the resource. Right now, we have the task of looking at ways to make sure we are protecting our important marine resources without eliminating a $2.3 million industry overnight.”

Decision-making is set for 11:35 a.m., Thursday, in House conference room 325.

Read the testimony here:

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