I enjoy educating others about the environmental issues facing Hawaii.
Through several factors like global warming, ocean acidification, pollution, and invasive species, the conditions of those complex ecosystems have been steadily declining over the past decades. Reef experts agree that fish, especially herbivores, are key to reef balance, reef recovery, and resilience as they regulate algae growth.
Aquarium extraction removes primarily those herbivores that prevent algae suffocation. In Hawaii, the top three targeted species are Yellow Tang, Goldring Surgeonfish, and Achilles Tang, accounting for well over 90% of the catch.
Commercial capture of reef wildlife for aquarium use (fish, eels, shrimp, hermit crabs, lobster, etc.) is poorly regulated in the Aloha State. There is no limit on the number of permits ($50 fee), no meaningful limit on reef wildlife numbers, and no real enforcement.
The authority in charge, the Department of Natural Land and Resources (DLNR) is understaffed and officers are prohibited from inspecting unless there is ‘probable cause’. There is no mandatory dealer report, and compliance to file catch reports is known to be low. Management and regulations are ineffective.
The main area for extraction is West Hawaii (Big Island), followed by Oahu. After a stock depletion of heavily targeted species in the 1990s, DLNR established 35% of Fish Replenishment Areas in West Hawaii, which are basically no-take zones. They also established a “White List” of 40 fish species that can be collected. All popular aquarium species can be found on this list. Although the most collected species, Yellow Tang, recovered in the protected FRA areas, many other fishes declined (Achilles Tang, Ornate Wrasse, Fourspot Butterflyfish, Bird Wrasse). In the remaining 65% areas open for collection, impacts on this biodiverse ecosystem are insufficiently studied and mostly unclear.
On Oahu, aquarium collection is even more unregulated; only 1% of coastline is protected and all but three species can be removed.
The economic value of healthy Hawaiian reefs is estimated at $10 billion. Experts agree that herbivores like surgeonfishes are key to the balance of the complex and delicate reef ecosystem. Aquarium collectors remove mostly herbivores, allowing as result algae overgrowth.
Hawaii with its narrow fringing reef is the third largest source of wildlife in the global aquarium trade, with two and a half more reported catch than the Great Barrier Reef. Based on reported data from 2000 to 2014, more than 9 million sea creatures were captured by commercial collectors; underreporting could bring that number up two to five times.
Throughout a long transit, the fish are subjected to a chain of cumulative trauma, which ultimately results in a mortality rate of 80% to 90% within a year of capture, fueling the demand.
Six–figure reported catch data per year result from countless fish perishing in filthy conditions during long and complex supply chains, oftentimes halfway around the world to an amusement and decor industry.
They succumb to cumulative trauma from stress and physical injury (piercing of swim bladder to prevent barotrauma, starvation to reduce shipping weight and excrements in small plastic containers, extreme changes in water temperatures, and indiscriminate exposure to toxic chemicals and parasites). The rest cannot adjust from life in the single most stable environment on earth, the ocean, to the average home aquarium, where water parameters fluctuate daily and many hobbyists lack the experience to handle those exotic, delicate creatures.
Even though collecting with dynamite and sodium cyanide are illegal in Hawaii, catch methods like tickle sticks, sand-mimicking tarps, or dragging anchors and equipment (live-well baskets, scooters) across the seafloor, destruct corals. Corals, which are in contrast to fish protected by law from being taken or damaged.
Culture and Tradition
For centuries, ancient Hawaiians managed their resources in a sustainable manner and pono (righteous), influenced by a deep connection with nature. Overexploitation was avoided by cultural and spiritual aspects and values like malama (care for the land), or kuleana (mutual responsibility—contribute to the place you are taking from).
Their division of the land into ahupua’a provided a sustainable production of food for tribute and trade for its population. Only inhabitants of an ahupua’a had access rights to resources. Take was limited to need of the inhabitants to sustain life at all levels. In contrast, aquarium collectors extract vast amounts of wildlife without meaningful catch limits.
The kapu system established temporary and seasonal reef closures to allow fish-population recovery. Present closures, like the rotational closures on Oahu, do not provide sufficient recovery from declines during open periods.
Ancient ponds supplemented food production when reefs were under kapu. Currently, wildlife can be taken for free, undermining incentives to promote local aquaculture. Alternatives like captive breeding can help conserve wildlife and create job opportunities.
Efforts to End Wildlife Removal
From two bills that moved through the 2017 legislature (house bill HB 1457 and senate bill SB 1240), SB 1240 made it all the way through several hearings to the governor's desk. Both bills were aimed at eventually phasing out commercial aquarium collection to protect Hawaii reef wildlife.
The final language of bill SB1240 would have stopped the issuance of new aquarium permits for good and make existing permits renewable, but non-transferable. Furthermore, it would have required DLNR to establish more sustainable measures and put a hold on the issuance of only new permits.
Existing permittees would have been grandfathered-in to ensure that livelihoods of aquarium collectors would not have been affected.
More than 90% testimonies were in support of the bills, coming from a diverse group of people: Scientists, community associations, residents and former employees of the trade having witnessed destructive collecting methods, natives, non-natives, tourists, or just plain Hawaii lovers. What all of them have in common is the love of beauty, nature, and the realization that marine wildlife is important public trust that should no longer be misused for making cheap money.
A recent poll also confirmed the strong support for ending the current practices. Nevertheless, the aquarium industry and especially DLNR put enough pressure on the governor to veto the bill. Supporters of the bill promise that the story is far from over.
The removal of herbivores in unlimited numbers, like tangs and other surgeonfishes, is not sustainable. Captive breeding (spawning and raising of a species controlled by humans in a closed environment) is one opportunity to reduce the pressure on reef wildlife resulting from extraction.
Unfortunately, pelagic spawning species like tangs and other surgeonfishes are especially hard to breed in captivity. Since wildlife can currently be taken for free, there is no incentive to pursue alternatives. Funds would have to be invested in local aquaculture to establish as successful captive breeding program. This would not only help to conserve our wildlife but also result in ample job opportunities.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.