- Special Projects
Sixteen environmental groups and two state agencies are asking Gov. David Ige and Department of Land and Natural Resources Chair Suzanne Case to issue an emergency moratorium on the collection of reef wildlife for aquarium purposes due to the effects of climate change.
The head of the Hawaii Office of Environmental Quality Control and members of the state Environmental Council have underscored the dramatic changes Hawaii’s nearshore waters are experiencing from record high temperatures, ocean acidification and massive coral bleaching.
Outgoing OEQC Director Jessica Wooley sent Case a letter Monday that highlights how a temporary ban on collecting reef wildlife can help combat the effects that climate change is having on nearshore waters.
“Time is of the essence,” Wooley said.
In a statement Tuesday, the DLNR said it has received OEQC’s request and “is in the process of giving it careful and thoughtful consideration.”
“DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources will analyze and consider the request based on the best science available,” the statement says.
Inga Gibson, Hawaii state director of The Humane Society, said in a release Tuesday that the environmental and cultural impacts of the aquarium trade have never been assessed in its 50-year history, as required by the Hawaii Environmental Protection Act.
“In light of the current, potentially catastrophic, coral bleaching events, we are very concerned about these impacts and urge the DLNR to act swiftly to protect this wildlife and their native reefs from unnecessary ornamental take,” she said.
The OEQC has also determined that commercial aquarium extractive activities are subject to and should go through the environmental review process under HEPA prior to any of these commercial activities occurring in state waters.
Hawaii is the largest U.S. supplier of reef wildlife for the aquarium trade and the third largest supplier in the world, according to the Humane Society. Hundreds of thousands of animals are captured annually on Hawaii’s reefs, and some species, like the endemic bandit angelfish, have nearly disappeared.
“The urgency of this issue is increasing as scientific evidence has shown that the effects of coral bleaching can be ameliorated when there are robust herbivore reef fish populations,” Wooley said.
The DLNR issued a news release Oct. 9 about the “unprecedented bleaching” that thousands of visitors were seeing up close at Molokini, off the coast of Maui, where over a dozen commercial boats take tourists to snorkel and dive.
The Division of Aquatic Resources has been monitoring coral bleaching for years.
“While the scene underwater is visually beautiful, we hope our visitors realize what they’re seeing is a result of climate change,” said Darla White, the DAR special projects coordinator, in a release. She likened the sight to a “winter scene under water.”
“Conservatively at least one half of the corals at Molokini are currently bleached; probably more,” she said.
Bleaching, a response to higher than normal ocean temperatures, makes corals highly susceptible to disease and other natural and man-caused stresses, the DLNR explains. It’s the second year of severe bleaching across the entire archipelago.
“What boat loads of visitors are now seeing at Molokini provides an opportunity for us and their tour operators to provide information and education on coral bleaching, what causes it, and what every person can do to try and help reverse what NOAA now describes as a worldwide crisis,” Case said in the DLNR release.
In early October, hundreds of people took part in a Bleachapalooza event in which Eyes of the Reef Network trained them how to report coral bleaching. That resulted in more than 100 new bleaching reports over the following week, the DLNR says.
The OEQC is calling for a moratorium of at least 180 days to give the DLNR time to evaluate the health of the nearshore waters and work to find solutions with people who have permits to collect aquarium fish.
The environmental groups joining in that request include Conservation Council for Hawaii, For the Fishes and the Hanalei Watershed Hui among others.
The science shows significant negative effects from nearshore commercial aquarium fishing throughout much of the Hawaiian Islands and the importance of protecting areas, at least for a period of time, to allow fish populations to recover, Wooley said.
On Sunday, NOAA issued its highest alert for coral bleaching for the next month for the Big Island and parts of Maui.
Wooley had been held over as OEQC director since her term ended June 30. Uncertainty over whether she would continue to lead the agency ended last week when Ige announced that Scott Glenn would take over starting in November.
The governor has struggled to fill environmental positions in the administration.
The 15-member Environmental Council has barely been able to meet due to so many vacancies. Glenn had been serving as the council’s vice chair, but will become an ex-officio member as OEQC director, thereby creating another empty seat.
The governor’s office has said it is working to find qualified candidates to serve on the council.
Read Wooley’s letter to Case here.