Visitors to the Open Sea exhibit at California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium are astonished to see tuna, turtles, sharks and jellies pulsating through the indigo waters.
The 1.3 million-gallon aquarium is observed through a 90-foot, single-pane window, making it seem like one can almost reach out and touch the wildlife. The unavoidable takeaway is that the sea is a majestic wonder.
Here at home, if there is one thing both proponents and opponents of Senate Bill 1240 — the aquarium fishing bill — can agree on, it’s that caring for the waters, reefs and marine life that surround the islands is critical.
Another is that aquariums can be wonderful educational and recreational venues, whether in homes or in major facilities, for people of all ages. Hawaii has commercial aquariums in Maalaea on Maui and near Waikiki.
But SB 1240, one of just a handful of significant environmental bills to survive the 2017 Legislature, is on Gov. David Ige’s potential veto list. With the July 11 deadline approaching, arguments for and against the measure are filling columns and editorial pages.
If it becomes law, the bill will effectively phase out aquarium fishing by ending the state’s granting of new permits to use the fine-meshed traps and nets to collect the fish. Existing permit holders will be grandfathered in, which means aquarium fishing will continue in Hawaii for at least the next generation.
Supporters of the aquarium bill, such as the Humane Society of the United States, note the legislation has been a long time coming, dating from the administrations of Govs. Jack Burns (which pushed for studying the industry’s impact) and George Ariyoshi (which decided things could wait) in the 1970s.
SB 1240 does not end aquarium fishing, but the state currently has no limit on the number of permits it issues. The permits are also free, and there are no bag limits except in certain areas.
Under the bill, the Department of Land and Natural Resources would be required to propose to the 2019 Legislature a definition of “sustainable” and a process for determining sustainable annual catch limits for the 40 most popular aquarium species.
Opponents — namely, DLNR and aquarium fish collectors — say there is no evidence of overfishing in the aquarium industry. DLNR says it doesn’t have the financial resources and staff to conduct new surveys of fish in Hawaii waters should the bill become law.
As evidenced from his veto list, the governor is leaning toward the view of his department.
“There is concern that the science does not support the claims made by the bill,” the administration stated. “It will be premature to ban aquarium collection before doing the necessary studies.”
Lobbying for and against the bill has been intense, and both sides have leveled charges (some behind the scenes) of conflicts of interest, distortion of scientific data and plain ignorance.
But the governor also hinted at a possible solution to the aquarium bill. He said the DLNR “is committed to working with all stakeholders to come up with a better solution.”
Vetoing SB 1240 would not help, because new legislation would have to be introduced, and there is no guarantee it would pass. A better choice is to let SB 1240 become law without Ige’s signature, and to have DLNR and lawmakers work to improve the new law next session.
The agency could help lead a statewide conversation on how best to manage our reefs, and to get a better handle on real data and possible catch limits — not just in West Hawaii, where 80 percent of the aquarium wildlife is collected. Captive breeding of marine animals should also be examined.
DLNR would need greater fiscal support from the state to help accomplish this. It might also need more time than the 2019 deadline.
SB 1240 aligns with Ige’s Sustainable Hawaii Initiative, which calls for effectively managing 30 percent of the state’s nearshore waters by 2030.
The bill is a far cry from the moratorium that supporters initially called for. Stopping the industry from growing until more scientific data is available is a responsible approach from an environmental standpoint and also an economic one, given Hawaii’s tourism-driven economy.
SB 1240 is compromise legislation. Let it become law, and then fine-tune it.
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The members of Civil Beat’s editorial board are Pierre Omidyar, Patti Epler, Jim Simon, Richard Wiens, Chad Blair, Jessica Terrell and Landess Kearns. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.