A decades-long fight over the future of the aquarium industry’s collecting of fish in Hawaii was renewed last week when two state agencies requested an emergency moratorium on the practice in light of unprecedented coral bleaching.

But to some of the several dozen active commercial aquarium fishermen in Hawaii, the request to temporarily stop mining the reefs for yellow tangs and other fish merely signaled the start of another round in the dispute.

Collectors argue that they have a negligible impact on ocean resources, and that animal-rights activists want to shut down a multi-million-dollar industry they just don’t like.

“You can’t reason with that. It’s a moral position,” said Matt Ross, who’s been collecting aquarium fish on Oahu since graduating from the University of Hawaii in 2006 with a degree in marine biology.

A school of yellow tang swim in Honaunau Bay off of the western coast of Big Island.
A school of yellow tang swim in Honaunau Bay off the western coast of the Big Island. Mike McGrath/Flickr

He’s the rare collector who actually thinks the state should stiffen regulations, like limiting the number of permits and increasing their price, which is $50.

But he doesn’t feel a moratorium is needed. If it wasn’t coral bleaching, he said, the environmental groups would find something else to strengthen their case for an end to aquarium fishing.

“As a fisherman and someone who really does care about conservation, it’s really frustrating,” Ross said. “I’d rather have some sort of reasonable dialogue to manage fisheries in general rather than this black-and-white situation where there’s no compromise.”

Jessica Wooley, outgoing director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control, has called on the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to implement a 180-day moratorium in light of unprecedented coral bleaching.

Her Oct. 19 letter to DLNR Director Suzanne Case was backed by a formal recommendation from the state Environmental Council and support from 16 environmental groups that all want at least a temporary halt on the collection of commercial aquarium fish.

Wooley, whose term ends Friday, declined to comment Monday beyond what she wrote in her letter to Case. Gov. David Ige has appointed Scott Glen to replace her.

DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison said Monday that there’s no change in the agency’s two-sentence statement last week in response to the request. He said the DLNR is “in the process of giving it careful and thoughtful consideration,” and that the Division of Aquatic Resources, headed by Bruce Anderson, will “analyze and consider the request based on the best science available.”

All In The Numbers

A DLNR report to the Legislature last December highlighted the science surrounding the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area, which both sides of the aquarium debate have used to make their arguments.

Some 70 percent of the aquarium fish caught statewide comes from the waters off the Kona coast, and 67 percent of the value comes from West Hawaii.

Since 2000, the total catch has increased 22 percent and its value rose 45 percent in West Hawaii, according to the DLNR report.

No one disputes the industry’s growth, but there is disagreement over its effect on the resource.

A kole tang, the second most targeted species in West Hawaii by the aquarium fishers.
A kole tang, the second-most-targeted species in West Hawaii by aquarium fishers. FromSandToGlass/Flickr

In West Hawaii, yellow tang is the target, comprising 84 percent of the collected aquarium species last year. The yellow tang is the most valuable marine organism in Hawaii that’s caught in relatively large numbers, fetching more than $250 per pound, according to the DLNR report.

The OEQC and Environmental Council, as well as nonprofits such as For the Fishes, say it’s critical to protect these herbivores that eat algae on the reefs. They point at advice from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which says temporary protection of herbivores is one of the best ways to bolster corals’ defense against bleaching, which is caused by rising ocean temperatures, acidification and other effects of climate change.

But aquarium fishers say their impact is so negligible that a moratorium would accomplish nothing more than putting them out of business.

In West Hawaii, there were 75,274 pounds of reef fish caught in West Hawaii for the aquarium trade compared to 208,661 pounds caught by commercial and recreational fishermen. That’s based on a three-year annual average from 2008 to 2011, the most recent data in the DLNR report.

On Oahu, 36,119 pounds of reef fish were caught for the aquarium trade compared to 738,945 pounds caught by commercial and recreational fishermen.

The overall change in herbivore biomass in fish-replenishment areas, marine protected areas, and open areas.
The overall change in herbivore biomass — the average mass of the species per unit of area — in fish-replenishment areas, marine protected areas, and open areas. DLNR Report

With the aquarium fishery taking less than 5 percent of the fish biomass — the mass of the species — harvested on Oahu each year, Ross says a moratorium on collecting aquarium fish would be “practically insignificant.”

“One group’s sustainable is another group’s depleted.” — Rene Umberger, For the Fishes

Rene Umberger, a Maui-based scuba instructor who founded For the Fishes, said the groups are looking for the low-hanging fruit. Restricting people from taking fish that will ultimately end up in aquariums on the mainland is considered a more realistic starting place, she said, compared to asking people to stop fishing for food.

“How do you limit people who are taking fish to feed their families while allowing ornamental take?” she said.

Ross and Umberger both point at statistics from the same report when it comes to changes in the amount of herbivores in West Hawaii waters over the past decade.

Some see the amount of fish in unrestricted open areas, which is tracking similar to the amount in restricted fish replenishment areas in West Hawaii, as a sign that the aquarium industry is being managed well. Both were at about 20 grams per square meter in 2013.

But the amount of fish biomass is much higher in marine protected areas in West Hawaii — 35 grams per square meter.

The overall changes in yellow tang abundance in marine protected areas, fish-replenishment areas and open areas in West Hawaii.
The overall changes in yellow tang abundance in marine protected areas, fish-replenishment areas and open areas in West Hawaii. DLNR Report

Fish replenishment areas comprise roughly 35 percent of the West Hawaii coastline. There’s an extra layer of prohibited activities in these areas, like feeding fish, but they aren’t as restricted as marine protected areas.

Looking at fish abundance, there are signs that the amount of yellow tang have increased since 1999. But when broken down by where the numbers are going up, it’s clear that it’s the fish-replenishment areas that saw the biggest boost, which happened after aquarium fishing was restricted in those locations. The marine protected areas increased slightly in that time, while the open areas have decreased slightly.

It’s the gap between the open areas and the restricted areas that advocates for a moratorium point at though. They say it’s evidence that millions of fish are missing from open areas.

“One group’s sustainable is another group’s depleted,” Umberger said.

Legislative Debate Unlikely

If the DLNR doesn’t institute a moratorium, Umberger said she doesn’t anticipate taking the fight to the Legislature as environmental groups have done in the past.

Umberger said she’s been advised of the difficulties of lawmakers passing anything controversial next session, which starts in January, because it’s an election year.

“The Legislature has made it really clear this isn’t an issue they’re willing to take on,” she said.

There’s been limited movement on aquarium-related bills introduced in recent years. Many die without so much as a hearing, and others are lucky to clear one committee.

“It’s kind of like mining oil; it’s going to run out at some point.” — Sen. Russell Ruderman

Carty Chang, who served as interim DLNR director last year, opposed a moratorium when it was proposed last session. In his February testimony to a House committee, he said extensive surveys of reef fish along the Kona coast show the aquarium fishery is operating at a sustainable level.

The pet industry, tourism groups and aquarium fishermen from Hawaii to Florida similarly came out against the measure.

It’s unclear how new DLNR Director Suzanne Case will respond to the request for a moratorium, but Umberger said she’s hopeful.

There are some strong proponents of moratoriums, especially among lawmakers who represent Maui, where commercial aquarium fishing has been virtually nonexistent since the county passed laws tightening restrictions.

On the Big Island, Sen. Russell Ruderman, who has sponsored legislation in the past to ban aquarium fishing, said he would introduce a bill next session if his colleagues don’t. He’s hesitant to take the initiative because of concern that having his name attached to it would be a “poison pill.”

“It’s our shared resources that are being extracted for profit,” he said. “It’s kind of like mining oil; it’s going to run out at some point.”

Instead of a ban, Ross said the state could do a better job restricting the overall number of permits — currently there’s no limit — and adding measures to help ensure the fish are transported in a way that reduces mortality.

“We could use more regulations,” he said, noting that commercial aquarium fish collectors can afford to pay a lot more than $50 for a permit.

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