Efforts to reopen waters off the western coast of Hawaii island for commercial aquarium fishing stalled this month after the state Department of Land and Natural Resources rejected a plan from 10 Big Island fishers.

Between 1976 and 2018, more than 8.6 million fish were taken from West Hawaii waters for use in aquariums around the world, before a 2017 state Supreme Court ruling against the practice in the region. Now, aquarium fishers are turning to waters off the eastern side of the Big Island and Oahu for their stock.

The latest episode of “Are We Doomed?” — Civil Beat’s Q-and-A podcast about the environment in Hawaii — takes a look at ways aquariums could stock tropical fish without hurting Hawaii’s environment.

Yellow tang, seen here off the west side of the Big Island, are one of the most targeted species by the aquarium industry.

Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The 10 commercial aquarium fishers in West Hawaii were represented by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, an industry group that spent two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars preparing the environmental impact statement the land board unanimously voted down.

Bob Likins, the group’s vice president, said in an email that he was disappointed by the land board’s decision and that the group “will continue to support sustainable fishery practices, and use of the best available scientific information in guiding management decisions.”

Likins declined an interview request to discuss his plans for sustainable fishing practices, but in documents submitted to the state land board, the group cites research finding that catching 5% to 25% of the tropical fish population in West Hawaii could be sustainable.

Its proposal, however, would have allowed an unlimited number of fish to be caught. DLNR chair Suzanne Case said this was one of the main reasons the environmental review was rejected.

Rene Umberger, executive director of For The Fishes, a Maui-based nonprofit, thinks a sustainable plan would probably only allow for one company to collect aquarium fish.

“If by sustainable you mean historic natural abundance, then there could be no collecting because those reefs have far less fish than their natural abundance,” she said.

Coral colonies in Kaneohe Bay suffered major damage in a 2015 bleaching event.

Alana Eagle/Civil Beat

And in the face of climate change, coral reefs will need more herbivorous fish to remain healthy than in previous decades.

When coral is stressed by high ocean temperatures, it can expel the helpful algae living in its tissues. The coral “bleaches” and turns white but isn’t dead, just more vulnerable and unhealthy.

“If you have a healthy population of herbivores, including aquarium fish, that can keep the algae down, it gives the corals a chance to recover and then hopefully rebound,” said Case. “That’s potentially a game changer for the reef.”

Case said another reason the land board rejected the West Hawaii environmental impact statement was because it didn’t “adequately project” how climate change could impact the reef.

“It’s one thing to understand what the environmental impacts are right now under current conditions, but as we know, climate change is causing rapid changes in our reefs … and it’s changing so rapidly that you can’t really use today’s projections to understand the impact of taking out an undetermined and potentially unlimited number of fish from the ecosystem,” she said.

A school of yellow tang swims along a reef on the Kona coast of the Big Island.

Alana Eagle/Civil Beat

The yellow tang, a popular aquarium fish, is of particular concern. A study from the Division of Aquatic Resources found aquarium fishing decreased yellow tang populations by about 60% a year since 1999.

“This was never designed to be sustainable,” said Kealoha Pisciotta of Big Island-based ocean protection nonprofit Kai Palaoa.

“When you take the herbivores, it affects the reefs below and then up the food chain, the bigger predators,” she said. “Which then affects our people’s ability to fish and feed their families.”

Marine researcher Craig Downs, of Haereticus Environmental Laboratories, said climate change is just one of “1,000 cuts” killing Hawaii’s coral reefs.

“Sewage pollution, sunscreen pollution, recreational fishing, subsistence fishing, aquarium fishing, snorkeler/swimmer intrusion, sediment run-off from poor development and construction practices,” he wrote in an email. “It’s the tragedy of the commons.”

Downs instead advocated for a robust domestic breeding program for tropical aquarium fish.

“Hawaii and U.S. NOAA should make serious investments in developing technologies and companies that could culture these products in Hawaii,” he said. “Such efforts would only require a ‘take’ of about 10-30 individuals a year to keep breeding stocks from degenerating from genetic inbreeding.”

He pointed to groups in the Florida Keys that started as commercial aquarium fishers and evolved into coral reef advocates after their seed stock disappeared from the waters.

In the meantime, aquarium hobbyists and dentist offices that want to enjoy salt water fish without harming Hawaii’s environment can use apps like Tank Watch.

“It’s a free educational app that teaches hobbyists which fish are available at a moderate to regular level that are captive bred, and which fish are only coming from the wild and should be avoided at all costs,” Umberger said.

“Are We Doomed? And Other Burning Environmental Questions” is funded in part by grants from the Environmental Funders Group of the Hawaii Community Foundation and the Frost Family Foundation.

Want to hear more? Check out Civil Beat's other podcasts.

Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions
Are We Doomed?! And Other Burning Environmental Questions

What the heck is reef-safe sunscreen? Where does all the trash go? Why is it so hot? Join Civil Beat as we tackle your questions about Hawaii's environment. Smart. Irreverent. Never boring. This is not your grandma's science podcast.

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Offshore is a new immersive storytelling podcast about a Hawaii most tourists never see.

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