Commercial aquarium fish collection may no longer be a viable career in Hawaii unless Gov. David Ige can be convinced to take out his veto pen in the next two weeks.

Senate Bill 1240, which the Legislature passed by a wide margin in early May, prohibits the Department of Land and Natural Resources from issuing new aquarium fish permits as soon as it becomes law.

The bill grandfathers in the existing permit holders and lets them transfer their permits until 2022. It also requires the department to submit a report about the sustainability of collecting nearshore aquatic life.

Yellow tang, seen here off the west coast of the Big Island, are one of the most targeted species by the aquarium industry. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The measure has been heralded as a compromise between the commercial fish collectors and animal-rights activists who have fought each other for decades, sometimes literally. Lawmakers received a few thousand pages of testimony as it worked its way toward passage.

The 25-member Senate unanimously approved the bill and the 51-member House passed it with 14 voting against it.

“It’s a minor miracle that this bill passed,” said Jessica Wooley, former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.

“This piece of legislation in some ways is a small step and in some ways it’s a huge step,” she said. “Never before has the Legislature stepped in and said you have to shut this down. But it’s a small step because it’s going to take time.”

Sen. Karl Rhoads, the bill’s primary introducer, said it would be a “slow-motion shutdown” that could take 40 years before the estimated $2 million industry is phased out through attrition.

The lobbying by both sides has only continued in the weeks since the vote, with the focus shifting to the governor.

The deadline for Ige to compile a list of measures he intends to veto is June 26. He then has until July 11 to veto any of the bills on that list.

Some of the fish collectors say it’s a bad deal that could compromise their safety. They are urging the governor to veto the bill and have the Legislature take it up again next year.

“Our main problem with the bill at hand is that it would prevent us from hiring crew members and force us to dive by ourselves, which presents a serious safety issue,” 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.

At present, he said, commercial aquarium fish collectors must obtain a $50 commercial marine license from DLNR and then they can get the free aquarium fish permit, which lets them use fine meshed traps or nets to take certain marine life for aquarium purposes. The permits must be renewed each year.

Ross said any time he goes out to collect aquarium fish, everyone on the boat must have a permit to do so. 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 over time. He’s encouraging more people to get the permits before it’s too late.

Rhoads said that’s not his understanding of how the law would work. He said only the people in the water with the nets collecting the fish need to have the aquarium fish permits.

“It’s a bogus argument. I don’t think there’s any impediment with them diving with another person,” he said. “What they’re really concerned about is if they have two guys in the water and only can have one guy with a net then it’s wasting time and money.”

But the aquarium fish collectors maintain that DLNR has long required permits for everyone on board because it makes enforcement a more realistic endeavor.

Ross said if this is a gray area, he’d rather stay on the safe side than risk losing his permit.

Glass Half Full Or Half Empty?

Conservation groups, the Humane Society and others see the bill as an opportunity for the governor to show stronger leadership in the environmental arena and address fundamental flaws in how DLNR has managed the aquarium industry.

There is no limit on the number of aquarium fish permits the state issues, for instance, or even limits on how many fish each permit holder can take for many species in most areas.

There are about 50 active commercial aquarium fish permit holders, Rhoads said.  Many others have the permits but have not used them for years.

“We’ve reached that tricky juncture where political pragmatism overlaps with common sense,” said Robert Wintner of Snorkel Bob’s, a snorkel gear rental store in Hawaii.

The governor’s decision is complicated by the lack of support for the bill from DLNR, which largely sees the aquarium industry as well regulated and inconsequential when it comes to affecting fish populations and overall reef health.

Board of Land and Natural Resources Chair Suzanne Case told lawmakers in her testimony on the bill that the aquarium fisheries on Oahu and off the west coast of the Big Island — where most of the aquarium fish collection occurs — are stable.

“The data indicates that the West Hawaii aquarium fishery is currently operating at a level that does not indicate significant population declines or major shifts in species diversity in areas where collecting is occurring,” Case said in her April testimony on the bill.

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

Both sides point to the same science and come up with opposite conclusions. DLNR data over the past two decades for West Hawaii shows the number of yellow tang — the most targeted species — increased dramatically after 35 percent of the 200-mile coast was closed off to aquarium fish collectors.

There is a sizable gap remaining between the amount of fish found in the open areas and those in the protected areas.

The fish collectors and DLNR scientists say of course there are fewer fish in the open areas because fishing is allowed there. But they note that the populations are not declining, so the industry must be  happening in a sustainable manner.

Critics of the aquarium industry say this gap shows half as many fish are present in the open areas and that eliminating aquarium fish collection would help close that gap and improve the overall health of the reef.

“It’s like a glass half-full or glass half-empty question,” Ross said. “I would look at it and say it’s half full. We’ve been catching fish but they’re reproducing and coming back in the same numbers. But on the other side, they can say half empty because the fish are not at the absolute maximum that it could possibly be — that’s a philosophical difference.”

Judiciary Labor committee Vice Chair Sen Karl Rhoads with right, Chair Gil Keith Agaran. 28 feb 2017
Sen. Karl Rhoads, left, was the primary introducer of the bill to effectively phase out commercial aquarium fish collection in Hawaii. Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, right, co-introduced it with Rhoads, along with Sens. Roz Baker, Will Espero and Lorraine Inouye. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Rhoads acknowledged the “somewhat conflicting” evidence but decided in an “abundance of caution” to go forward with the bill, which began as a moratorium on aquarium fishing until it was amended to grandfather in existing permit holders.

“We overfish everything,” he said, adding that there’s no reason to risk contributing to that problem by catching fish that are not used for food. “It’s better to miss on the side of being overly protective than not protective enough.”

Ross said he is not opposed to more regulations of the aquarium industry and clearer policies from DLNR.

“If it’s properly managed then we can enjoy it longer,” he said.

The bill also requires 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.

DLNR officials were unavailable for comment Monday, a state holiday.

An Ethical Dilemma

At the heart of the matter is a fundamental disagreement over the morality of plucking the attractive fish off the reefs so they can be sold in pet stores to people who want to view them in tanks at their homes.

Polls have shown popular opinion shifting over the years.

Honolulu-based Anthology conducted a poll in May for two nonprofits, For the Fishes and Humane Society International, that found 83 percent of respondents support ending the business of capturing Hawaii’s marine life for personal aquariums. The poll surveyed 476 people and had a margin of error of 4.6 percent.

That’s up from a 2012 poll the Humane Society commissioned that found 66 percent of Hawaii residents polled supported ending the commercial collection of reef wildlife for aquariums.

Ross doesn’t give much credence to the polls though, saying it’s easy to shape them to get the results you want.

“People have this idea that having a fish in captivity is inhumane,” Ross said, adding that fewer than 1 percent of the fish he collects off of Oahu die before reaching the store.

“I don’t do this job just because I like the money,” he said. “I think they’re a positive thing for society. The idea that my kids won’t be able to enjoy fish in an aquarium is disheartening.”

Wooley said it’s an “ethical question” that people are taking more seriously as more becomes known about the broader damage humans are doing to the planet.

“From my perspective, why shouldn’t we do all that we can?” she said. “We need to refocus our energy on protecting the species we have.”

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