Unprecedented national discourse generated by misleading statements and alternative truths reminds us of one important aspect of policymaking at all levels, and one that we must never forget: Facts matter.

In the long-fought battle to keep Hawaii’s fragile reef wildlife out of mainland hobby tanks and on their native reefs, aquarium pet trade proponents often use false or subjective buzzwords such as “sustainable” and “most regulated” when referring to this decades-long destructive activity. Nothing could be further from the truth.

One day in 2014 stands out in demonstrating this point. That was the day that the then-Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources administrator resigned — but not before testifying before the Board of Land and Natural Resources in opposition to faux aquarium trade rules proposed by collectors. The testimony explained that the rules were inconsistent with good natural resource management, not based on science and developed in a flawed process where important stakeholders had been excluded.

A school of yellow tang swims along a reef on the Kona coast of the Big Island. A bill before lawmakers would prohibit harvesting aquatic life for commercial aquarium purposes.

Alana Eagle/Civil Beat

BLNR ignored these concerns, instead voting with their then-chair, a former aquarium collector himself. However, an important set of facts emerged from the one meeting BLNR did subsequently require DAR hold with scientists: Where the aquarium trade was concerned, “sustainable” had not been defined, and neither had the means to measure it, the state’s management goals, or the metrics for meeting those goals.

In 2017, Senate Bill 1240 attempted to once again define sustainable, but DLNR again opposed it, claiming it was unnecessary and too costly. Gov. David Ige vetoed the bill.

No one disputes that fish populations are increasing in the areas closed to take — that is the expectation in closing an area to commercial extraction. But this is surely not the case for the 60-90 percent reduction in fishes and other creatures taken for the pet trade in areas that remain open to collection.

The Threat Of Climate Change

Further, while some off-shore food fisheries routinely deplete fish populations by upwards of 80 percent and are referred to as sustainable, this is not the case for near-shore coral reef ecosystems now threatened with extinction as a result of climate change.

This is sadly not hyperbole. For those who missed Civil Beat’s Hawaii 2040 coverage, without a drastic reduction in the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change, 70 percent of Hawaii’s coral reefs are projected to be dead in 30 years, with just 1 percent remaining by the end of the century, in a process that will occur right before our eyes, and may begin as early as 2030.

Experts urge we must turn our focus to restoring abundance, removing stressors, and building resilience within these ecosystems. Prior to the 2017 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that shut down the aquarium trade in West Hawaii, pending proper environmental review, nearly two times more fish were taken from West Hawaii reefs for the aquarium pet trade than were taken by all fishers for food.

We agree with scientists who state there are many threats to our ocean ecosystems including pollution and other forms of over-fishing, however, this doesn’t excuse the impacts of the aquarium industry, with mortality rates that would never be accepted in any other “pet trade,” and that economically benefit so few in Hawaii.

One need only look to Florida, with a smaller aquarium trade, to see that Hawaii’s trade is poorly regulated with minimal laws and rules that are virtually unenforceable. Unlike Florida, where aquarium collection permits are capped and can cost tens of thousands of dollars, DLNR has never set a limit on the number of (free) aquarium permits issued nor on the number of animals that can be taken. Lacking resources and will, DLNR is unable to provide even the most basic enforcement, and so the trade continues, business as usual, despite the court ruling.

Hawaii prohibited the take of coral, rock and sand in 1986 yet 30-plus years later continues to allow unlimited extraction of our critical marine life. In the words of my dear, late colleague, Marjorie Ziegler, in her long opposition to the trade — would the state similarly allow our native birds and other animals to be taken and sold for mainland profits?

DLNR is unable to provide even the most basic enforcement, and so the aquarium trade continues.

Which brings us to Senate Bill 931, which just crossed to the House for consideration. Thus far the bill has received testimony, 4:1, in support, which mirrors a scientific poll showing 84 percent of residents want to see an end to the trade.

The bill faces some major hurdles, but is worth fighting for. It includes important exemptions for public aquariums, education, research and aquaculture purposes — a growing sector with job opportunities for local collectors.

Further, with an effective date of 2024, it also gives the trade five years to phase out, an important compromise that, while bringing us dangerously close to the start of the projected annual severe coral bleaching events, should give our marine animals and their reef homes time to build resilience as they face an ever-increasing battle for their very survival.

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