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Gov. David Ige is facing a political quandary as he nears Monday’s deadline for deciding the fate of a bill that would eventually end the catching of aquarium fish in Hawaii.
Does he go against the advice of his own Department of Land and Natural Resources, which insists the industry is not having a negative effect on the environment? Or, with a low approval rating and looming re-election campaign, does he take the popular path and sign a measure that polls have shown has broad public support?
State Division of Aquatic Resources Administrator Bruce Anderson said Thursday that DLNR has asked Ige to veto Senate Bill 1240. But he added that he has “no idea” which way the governor will go.
“We have a number of problems with it,” he said during his report to the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council at its regular meeting in Honolulu. “I’m not sure the legislators knew what they were doing.”
Animal-rights activists, including the Humane Society of the United States and nonprofits based in Hawaii, have for decades demanded an end to the aquarium trade.
They have underscored glaring omissions in the state’s management of the industry. Namely, there’s no limit on the number of free commercial aquarium permits that DLNR can issue and no limit on the number of many types of fish that can be collected except in certain areas.
And while the state has for years studied key species that aquarium collectors target — specifically, yellow tang — off the west coast of the Big Island, there have not been comparable studies for Oahu. There is little-to-no aquarium fish collection on Kauai or Maui.
Roughly 80 percent of the aquarium fish collected come from the west side of the Big Island. But Anderson said there is “no data” that shows the aquarium industry is having a negative effect on ocean resources there.
Supporters of the measure look at the same science but draw different conclusions.
They point to a huge gap between the amount of yellow tang found in the areas that are off limits to aquarium fish collectors off the Kona coast and the amount found in unprotected areas.
Sen. Karl Rhoads, who introduced the bill with four of his colleagues, has acknowledged the discrepancies over what the science does or does not indicate. He said he went forward with the measure — which passed both chambers of the Legislature overwhelmingly — because he felt it was better to err on the side of caution in managing these vital reef fish populations.
To Anderson, the issue really isn’t about the scientific need to end aquarium fishing.
“I don’t think that’s what’s driving this bill,” he said. “Many are animal-rights activists who just don’t like the idea of taking fish out of the ocean and putting them in a tank.”
Still, Anderson acknowledged the successful lobbying campaign to get the bill, which involves an issue that has been argued over for years in Hawaii, through the Legislature.
“There’s a huge constituency out there — school kids and others — that are putting an effort out there to get this signed into law,” he said. “If you don’t know the facts, it’s easy to support.”
The bill would grandfather in existing permit holders and allow them to transfer their permits until 2022.
The measure also would require DLNR to report back to the Legislature before the 2019 legislative session with a proposed definition of “sustainable,” a policy for sustainable collection practices or nearshore aquatic life, a process for determining limits on collection practices of nearshore aquatic life and any additional resources required by the department.
Fielding a question from Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds, Anderson said DLNR has estimated if it were to set catch limits for just 40 species of aquarium fish caught in Hawaii that the agency would need about $10 million a year for at least 10 to 15 years.
There were 386 “valid and active” aquarium permits issued as of last week, DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison said. Of those, 216 are for commercial purposes.
A total of 1,042 collectors were issued an aquarium permit since June 2012, Dennison said. According to the provisions in SB 1240, anyone who was issued a permit five years prior to the effective date is eligible to renew the permit provided that it is done within five years of the renewal application date, otherwise the permit will lapse.
This establishes the finite number of aquarium permit collectors, he said.
The free aquarium permit for commercial purposes allows the use of meshed traps or nets. The permits must be renewed each year.
Dennison said when someone takes a boat out to go diving for aquarium fish, everyone on board must have an aquarium permit.
There was a lack of understanding on that point when lawmakers were working on the bill between January and May, with some members believing only the people actually collecting the aquarium fish needing a permit.
“If the boat party is collecting for the aquarium trade, this becomes a commercial operation,” Dennison said in an email. “All of the active participants, including the people operating the vessel on the water and the divers, each must procure the Commercial Marine License and Aquarium Permit.”
Commercial aquarium fish collectors have said they are concerned about the bill preventing them from hiring crew members.
Matt Ross, who’s been making a living collecting aquarium fish off of Oahu since 2006, said it presents a safety issue if he has to dive by himself for the fish. He said he knows a handful of people who already have the aquarium fish permits who could go diving with him but that it may become harder to find someone if the bill becomes law.
Environmental groups and the ocean-tourism industry are strong advocates for the bill’s passage.
“If commercial wildlife collectors were removing native Hawaiian birds — even common ones — from our forests to be sold as caged-bird pets, the public would be up in arms,” said Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii.
“We feel the same way about removing marine life from our reefs for commercial sale to aquarium enthusiasts. The practice of removing marine life for the aquarium trade is unnatural, unnecessary and wasteful with high levels of wildlife mortality.”
Keith Dane, Hawaii policy advisor for the Humane Society of the United States, steered lawmakers to past studies by the University of Hawaii and DLNR.
In 1998, he said, a DLNR State of the Reefs report listed the collection of fish for the aquarium trade as a major cause of coral reef degradation in Hawaii. And that since then, numerous studies have documented substantial population declines of between 45 to 90 percent in certain reef fish species heavily targeted by the trade on Oahu and Hawaii Island.
Since 2000, Dane said some 35 percent of West Hawaii reefs have been closed to collection of fish for the aquarium trade. In these closed areas, he said studies have since shown population size increases for some, but not all, of the top 10 targeted species, based on DLNR reports.
In stark contrast, he said, these same studies confirm that fish population sizes are significantly diminished in the 65 percent of West Hawaii reefs that remain open to aquarium trade collection. For example, study data shows that since 2000, yellow tang populations in the open areas are 60 percent lower, on average, than populations in West Hawaii’s long-term reserves which were established before 2000.
People fishing for food take far more biomass off the reef than those collecting aquarium fish, Anderson said.
“There’s no comparison,” he said, adding that fishermen take 1,000 or even 10,000 times more fish for consumption than for the aquarium trade.
Anderson said it was “short-sighted” to target the take of aquarium fish, given the limited impact on the environment. He added that sediment and runoff also play a much larger role in reef degradation and the health of various fish stocks.
Wespac member Dean Sensui said there is concern that ending the aquarium trade is “one step along the way” to stopping all fishing.
Politically, it would be far more difficult to get a bill through the Legislature that banned a food source, lawmakers and proponents of the aquarium fishing ban said.
Ige would not say whether he intends to veto the bill at an editorial board meeting last week with Civil Beat.
The governor’s approval rating had sunk to 35 percent of voters in a Civil Beat Poll conducted in May. Only 20 percent said they wanted Ige to continue in that role.
Signing SB 1240 would score him additional political points with that constituency, but it would also raise questions about why he is ignoring the advice of the department most affected.
As Anderson said during the Wespac meeting, “Stay tuned. We’ll see what he says.”