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The Push to Ban Aquarium Fish Collecting in Hawaii Based on Emotions and Not Science

Snorkel Bob and Sea Shepherd team up to push for aquarium fish collection ban in Hawaii.

By John B. Virata | June 30, 2014

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In spite of scientific study after study after study stating that the aquarium fishery off the Big Island is the best managed fishery in the world, anti-aquarium activist Snorkel Bob has teamed up with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (deemed a bunch of pirates by U.S Federal Judge Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco in a civil lawsuit in 2013) in an attempt to prevent aquarium fish collectors in Hawaii from doing their jobs. 

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Robert Wintner, owner of the Snorkel Bob snorkeling chain in Hawaii and a vice president on Sea Shepherd's board of directors, is spearheading the effort in Hawaii to eliminate the aquarium fishery in the 50th state. 

 

According to an AP report in the Honolulu Star Advertiser, local fishermen, state regulators and even local environmental activists say Sea Shepherd needs to move on to other more pressing locales as Hawaiian aquarium fish stocks have rebounded considerably due to policies that were implemented years ago to protect the fishery. 

"We don't have a problem here anymore," Tina Owens of the local environmental group Lost Fish Coalition was quoted in the story. Lost Fish Coalition worked with the state to limit the number of aquarium fish collection permits issued by the state and worked with aquarium fish collectors to broker a swap between closed and open areas, so they aren't exactly aligned with aquarium fish collectors but aren't "eco-terrorists" either, as the FBI defined groups like Sea Shepherd in a letter to the House Resources Committee, Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health back in 2002. 

yellow tang
Yellow tang off a Kona Reef. Photo by Brocken Inaglory/Wikipedia
 

The west side of the Big Island, known as West Hawaii, has had aquarium fish collecting rules on the books since the late 1990s and banned the collection of fish along much of the coastline. Today 35 percent of the coast in West Hawaii is off limits to fish collecting. 

According to the report, the number of yellow tang has increased 88 percent in protected areas since regulations were put in place. Humboldt State University conservation biologist Brian Tissot, who has studied the fishery for decades, also said the number of goldring surgeonfish has increased 37 percent. The goldring surgeonfish is the second most sought after aquarium fish caught in Hawaii, behind the yellow tang. It is limited to five fish per person per day and must exceed four inches in length. The yellow tang is also limited to five 4.5 inch or larger fish per person per day or five 2-inch total length fish per person per day. 

Thanks to the regulations, the increased population numbers of these and other aquarium fish have entered into areas where fish collecting is permitted. 

A volunteer fisheries management council, called the West Hawaii Fisheries Council, has worked with all sides of this issue, environmentalists, divers, fish collectors, and tourism industry officials to strengthen regulations. Their latest rules limit was adopted and fish collectors must adhere to a list of 40 species of fish that may be captured, with bag limits. 


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"The aquarium fishers are still the target of negative publicity from animal rights groups who inflate extraction and mortality rates as well as ecosystem effects of the fishery," Arielle Levine, a marine conservation expert at San Diego State University said in her research paper pointing to the success of marine protected areas in Hawaii. You can read her full report "What makes a "successful” MPA? The unique context of Hawaii’s Fish Replenishment Areas Marine Policy 44: 196-203 here. Levine said that the council is doing an "an impressive job" protecting the fishery and increasing fish populations in West Hawaii. 

What the anti-aquarium activists fail to take into account, in addition to the science dispelling the notion that the reef species are threatened due to fish collecting, are other larger factors that have contributed to the decline of coral reefs in the state and around the world, including such things as sediment, fertilizer and pesticide runoff from the agricultural and development sector, ocean acidification and the effects of global warming, pollution, and the list goes on.

Science has determined that the fishery in Hawaii has rebounded due to regulations that have been in place for decades. The Snorkel Bobs and Sea Shepherds of the world look the other way and go after the little guys rather than tackle the bigger fish, err issues that really contribute to the demise of not only Hawaii's coral reefs, but reefs around the world. 

Andy Rhyne, an assistant professor at Roger Williams University and a research scientist the New England Aquarium said in the report: "This is not a debate or data or science. It's an emotional argument."

John B. Virata has been keeping fish since he was 10 years old.  He currently keeps an 80 gallon cichlid tank, a 20 gallon freshwater community tank and a 29 gallon BioCube with a Percula clown, a huge blue green chromis, and a firefish all in his kitchen, and a 55 gallon FOWLR tank with a pair of Ocellaris clowns, two blue green chromis, a six line wrasse, a peppermint shrimp, assorted algae and a few aiptasia anemones in his living room. Follow him on Twitter @johnvirata 

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