The uhu is a peculiar looking fish with prominent teeth that resemble a beak, hence the nickname “parrot fish.” Uhu scrub seaweed and algae from dead coral reefs, and a single fish can poop out 800 pounds of sand a year.

“The vast majority of that very fine sand that we know and love in Hawaii comes from the uhu,” said Eric Dilley, co-founder of The Uhu Conservancy and graduate student at the University of Hawaii.

But populations of uhu have declined in recent years, particularly around Oahu and the Big Island, which Dilley attributes to overfishing.

“What’s really concerning is what’s called ‘bombing the reef’,” said Dilley, referring to a practice where scuba divers go out at night with spear guns and kill all the uhu in an entire area.

“The uhu sleep at night and they’re very vulnerable,” he said.

While spearfishing with scuba gear is illegal in the majority of Oceanic nations, from American Samoa to Australia, the practice is still legal in Hawaii.

“In my opinion scuba spearfishing is inherently an unfair advantage and we know it negatively impacts entire populations,” Dilley said.

An uhu, or parrotfish, swims in Hanauma Bay. Courtesy: Randy Chiu/Flickr

The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources is considering a ban on night diving, but Ryan Okano, who works on ecosystem protection for the Division of Aquatic Resources said the department is nowhere close to a final ruling.

“We don’t want fishermen to believe that this is a done deal,” he said via email. “Because it is not a done deal.”

The state is also considering a bag ban, which would limit the kinds of uhu fishermen can catch. In 2014 Maui implemented strict rules on the amount and size of uhu that can be caught and violators face fines or can have their gear seized.

The island also has a number of “no take zones” where fishermen can’t kill herbivorous fish like the uhu. Okano said such areas, like the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area, have been a success.

Reefs depend on uhu to scrape away seaweed and invasive algae so new coral colonies can grow. Healthy reefs insulate beaches from waves and storms, so uhu fight beach erosion in two ways. And shoreline protection is increasing in urgency because climate change is tied to more frequent and intense storms in the Pacific.

“So yes, I’d say (uhu) are important for our beaches,” Okano said.

Small waves thrash the beach and sand in Waikiki. Honolulu. Hawaii. 2 march 2015. photograph cory Lum/Civil Beat
Small waves thrash the beach and sand in Waikiki. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Researchers like Dilley are calling on the state, and individuals, to do more. And Dilley has some bold ideas.

“We need people with eyes on the reefs to prevent poaching in protected areas and reef bombing,” he said.

While scuba spearfishing isn’t illegal, Dilley said the power of peer pressure is not to be overlooked. “People can realize this isn’t fair and it’s having such a negative impact on reefs that there are other ways to fish,” he said.

Dilley has also started looking outside the box of marine management. Specifically, up the mountain to watershed management.

“Sediment runoff really hurts reefs and hurts the species that depend on them like the uhu,” he said. Deforestation leads to soil erosion, which flushes the ocean with nutrients usually caught and used by tree roots. “So if you plant a tree you just could help save one of these fish,” Dilley said.

An even more out-of-the-box idea: using music and art to reconnect humans with the importance of uhu to these islands. In ancient Hawaiian stories, an uhu named Uhumakaikai became the parent of all fish in the sea.

“So we’ve brought together musicians and artists and the community to tell a story that moves the viewer to action,” he said.

While it may seem odd to attend a concert planned by a scientist, Dilley sees it as a natural extension of his work.

“Scientists have typically been very reserved in their advocacy for certain policies because they’re objective,” he said. “But with so many vested interests against the objective science, many people in the scientific community have come around to the idea that outreach to the public is much more important when something is objectively good.”

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