Hawaii Reef Wildlife Extraction Is Not the Message of Aloha

Updated on July 12, 2017
Yellow Tangs and Orangeband Surgeonfish at Kona Coast of Big Island
Yellow Tangs and Orangeband Surgeonfish at Kona Coast of Big Island | Source

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.

Yellow Tang - has a life expectancy of 30 years in the wild. In captivity, most of them die within one year. 100% in tanks come from reefs as they cannot be captive bred as of now..
Yellow Tang - has a life expectancy of 30 years in the wild. In captivity, most of them die within one year. 100% in tanks come from reefs as they cannot be captive bred as of now.. | Source
Kole - second most collected species, is of cultural and sustenance value for Hawaiians.
Kole - second most collected species, is of cultural and sustenance value for Hawaiians. | Source
Achilles Tang - third most collected species, population has been declining for decades and is of cultural and sustenance value for Hawaiians.
Achilles Tang - third most collected species, population has been declining for decades and is of cultural and sustenance value for Hawaiians. | Source


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, 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, 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, etc.) and 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.

Forcepsfish - on the list
Forcepsfish - on the list | Source
Milletseed Butterfyfish - on the list
Milletseed Butterfyfish - on the list | Source
Hawaiian Dascyllus- on the list
Hawaiian Dascyllus- on the list | Source
Yellowtail Coris - on the list
Yellowtail Coris - on the list | Source
Raccoon Butterflyfish - one of the few not on the White List
Raccoon Butterflyfish - one of the few not on the White List | Source


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 chain, often times 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, etc.). The rest cannot adjust from live 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.

Yellowmargin Morayeel - considered a guardian spirit in Hawaiian Culture
Yellowmargin Morayeel - considered a guardian spirit in Hawaiian Culture | Source

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.


Submit a Comment

No comments yet.


This website uses cookies

As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, soapboxie.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

Show Details
HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)