Harvesting Hawaii’s Aquarium Fish

 Honolulu Weekly (Cover Story)


More than 150 years ago, Hawaii had some of the most well-managed fisheries in the Pacific. Portions of each island were divided into separate ahupuaa, which in turn were watched over by the konohiki, who managed natural resources and made sure that they were used sustainably.

“In the past, people would fish within their own ahupuaa and, as a result, you would fish wisely to make sure that you have enough fish for tomorrow,” says Alan Friedlander, a fisheries ecologist for the US Geological Survey. “Survival and subsistence living was paramount then. Now, management regulations have become quite lax and people no longer operate in harmony, but in opposition, to the environment.”

As a result, the aquarium fish industry–a modern industry based primarily on aesthetic pleasure–has grown.

Most of the sales of aquarium fish are to mainland buyers, and only a small portion (about 10 percent) of sales are to locals, says Randy Fernley, an aquarium fish collector and the owner of Coral Fish Hawaii, a tropical fish store in ‘Aiea.

Fernley, who claims he makes about $55,000 in a good year, says that his customers like to buy fish from Hawaii–especially Yellow Tang and Tang Kole, the two most fished species in the state–because of their beauty and because the fish are collected in a humane manner, according to Fernley.

“Hawaii is known to have quality fish–more so than any other area in the world–and they are caught in an environmentally friendly manner using no chemicals, poison or dynamite.”

However, Friedlander points out, most of these fish are rare and unique to Hawaii, purchased by customers who care more about the visual appeal of the fish than the longevity of the species.

“With rare and endemic species you walk a fine line of not only depleting certain populations, but of wiping out the species as a whole.”

Industry buildup

The aquarium fish industry in Hawaii has existed for more than 50 years and focuses primarily on rare and endemic species and ornamental reef fish. The industry saw its first growth surge in 1959 with the arrival of commercial jet service to Oahu, which allowed for expedient shipping to the mainland. In 1975 alone, the number of commercial aquarium permits issued increased from four to 78, and the number of non-commercial aquarium permits increased from 55 to 218.

According to the the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), the aquarium fishery industry in Hawaii developed at its highest rate in the early 1970s. In 1973, the reported catch of 36 commercial permit holders was 35,556 marine organisms, which were valued at $74,100. By 1978, the number of marine organisms caught had increased by 500 percent to 179,000, and the value of the industry had increased by 400 percent to $296,850.

In response to the rapid and potentially devastating growth of this industry, the Division of Fish and Game (a precursor to DAR) placed a moratorium on collecting aquarium fish and issuing permits. The moratorium was to go in effect on July 1, 1973. Two days prior to its start, however, it was lifted and the State Animal Species Advisory Commission instead recommended an extensive study on the aquarium fish industry to consider restricting issuance of aquarium fish permits.

For the next decade, the growth of the aquarium fish industry remained relatively unabated and it expanded its reach to the coastal waters of the Neighbor Islands.

Although Oahu had the most productive and targeted waters in the early years of the aquarium fishery business (accounting for 64 percent of the catch in 1974 and 84 percent in 1981), this trend began to change in the 1980s. Hurricanes Iwa (Nov. 23, 1982) and Iniki (Sept. 11, 1992), which badly damaged large portions of the leeward coast, are two reasons for the decline, as was habitat loss and the widely suspected possibility that many fish communities were over-fished.

In contrast to Oahu, the aquarium fish industry on the Big Island has expanded dramatically over the past 20 years and continues to have the most targeted waters of all the islands. In fact, according to a 2003 DAR report, the majority of aquarium fish caught in the state not only come from the Big Island, but of those caught, 96.8 percent are from West Hawaii.

Sketchy catch reports

Currently, the DAR’s only means of monitoring how many and what types of fish are being caught is through mandatory catch reports that commercial fishing licensees are required to turn in at the end of each month.

Although this system has been in operation for more than 30 years, it is less than perfect, says Bill Walsh, a marine biologist for the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

Distributors–those who catch aquarium fish with an intent to sell them–must not only register for a aquarium permit, they must also purchase a commercial fishing license, which mandates that they send in their catch reports each month. Non-commercial fishermen, on the other hand, need only register for an aquarium permit, which limits them to collecting five fish at a time. Unlike commercial fishermen, non-commercial fishermen do not need to turn in catch reports, so the size of their catch is never verified.

Further complicating matters is the fact that no permit or license is required for recreational fishing.

“We don’t have a very good idea of what’s going on because the reported commercial catch is certainly lower than it should be,” says Friedlander. “There are also no records for recreational, subsistence or cultural fishers, so it’s hard to manage when you don’t even know how many fish are being taken out of the water.”

Unlike big industrial fisheries, such as the Hawaii long-line industry, which is relatively easy to manage because of the size of both its ships and catch, regulating commercial aquarium fisheries is much more difficult.

“People are fishing all around the shorelines,” says Friedlander. “They take place virtually everywhere so you can imagine the nightmare of trying to regulate them.”

Walsh, who has dedicated the last 13 years of his life to monitoring the aquarium fish population in West Hawaii, mourns the lack of a well-managed fishery system to better monitor the health and abundance of these fish.

“Fundamentally, there’s not the level of in-depth field monitoring of fish populations that we need, so we don’t even know what the trends are through time,” he explains. “Are there issues where perhaps certain species are being over-harvested? We don’t even know.”

Environmental Impact

Opponents of the aquarium fish industry argue that the feasibility of transporting a fish to the mainland via airplane and having it survive are slim.

“Most of these species die once they are taken out of the reefs,” says Keiko Bonk, a political activist and founder of the environmental organization PONO. “You’re pretty much taking live wildlife from the reef and shipping it off to a destination to be used as decoration [and then] die.”

Fernley disagrees, arguing that the mortality rate for aquarium fish is relatively low.

“If that was the case, we wouldn’t be in business. We have very few mortalities when we ship to the mainland.”

However, it is not so much the fishes’ longevity, but the fact that they are being removed from their natural habitats that is the main issue, Friedlander says. Because the aquarium industry targets juvenile fish, the threat of overfishing looms large.

“You’re harvesting these animals before they have a chance to reproduce. If you do that for a long enough period of time, you won’t have any left,” he says.

In addition to the threat of over-fishing, the fishermen themselves pose a threat to the natural habitat by damaging the very coral reefs that these fish live in. Although it is not the most serious threat to the health of both the reefs and the reef population, commercial net fishing and irresponsible haresting has been known to damage coral reefs, Walsh says.

“I’ve read reports of it being done and I’ve even seen some incidents,” he says. “It tends to be guys that don’t know what they’re doing or don’t care about what they’re doing. Fortunately, it’s not the most common thing, but it does occur.”

Legislative battle

In the last few months, tensions regarding collecting aquarium fish have flared due to the introduction of Senate Bill 580. The original bill, nicknamed the Snorkel Bob Bill, sought to amend the Hawaii Revised Statutes to ban the sale of aquatic life for aquarium purposes.

“It was an ambitious bill,” says Bonk. “If it had passed in it’s original form, it would have been a monumental step in the right direction.”

Three other bills were also introduced this session that would have required DLNR to develop a list of aquatic species that could be sold or collected for aquariums.

None of these bills were passed. This is partly because the bills were too general and all-encompassing, Walsh says.

“Fundamentally, the problem with legislative stuff is that unless you get somebody who really understands what’s going on and what needs to be done, you get people who really don’t have any understanding of the nature of the fishery [harvesting] or how it should be managed, and their ignorance is revealed in their legislation.”

Rather than blaming the bills themselves, Bonk blames the Legislature for not caring enough about the environment.

“There is no political will to change the way we take care of our natural environment. If I was to give Hawaii a grade right now, we have an ‘F.’ We are the capital for death in the world. We are noted for having the most extinction and the most endangered species on the entire planet.”

While this may very well be the case, the question of collecting aquarium fish will need to be addressed by the state at some point.

“It’s easier to fix stuff before it happens,” Friedlander points out. “There’s a tipping point to everything, and it feels like we’re butting up against it now.”

Biologist Finds his Passion

Thirteen years ago, Bill Walsh never expected that he’d be trading in his job as a graphic designer and tropical fruit farmer for a position with the Department of Aquatic Resources (DAR).

As a marine biologist and longtime resident of the Big Island, Walsh cares deeply about the health of the oceans and its inhabitants. He became active in a community group concerned about the shift of the aquarium fish industry from Oahu to West Hawaii in the early 1990s.

“Nobody knew what to believe or how concerned they should be because there were no reports and scientific evidence was lacking,” says Walsh, explaining why he joined the West Hawaii Reef Fish Working Group. “It was more because I was concerned about what was going on; not because I thought it would become my career at some point.”

As the aquarium fishery business expanded, public concern grew as well, and in 1998 the state Legislature passed Act 306, which established a West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area to better manage the coast’s marine resources. When the DLNR was looking to hire an aquatic biologist, Walsh’s friends encouraged him to apply and it wasn’t long before he was hired.

“I wasn’t looking for a career change,” Walsh said, “but I got hired, and literally it was like I’ve got this mandate to set up this entire program and ensure that 147 miles of coastline are protected and will last for future generations. OK, so how do I do that?”

Now, more than a 10 years later, 35 percent of West Hawaii’s coastline is protected from aquarium fish collecting through a network of nine Fish Replenishment Areas (FRAs), and eight of the top 10 targeted aquarium species have shown a significant increase in population.

But, warns Walsh, this is nothing to rejoice about. Although certain species have become more abundant, fish are still threatened from net fishing and other irresponsible collecting. The number of both commercial and non-commercial aquarium fish collectors in West Hawaii has not only increased, but so too has the catch (a 25 percent increase from 2000 to 2009) and the value of the industry (at an increase of more than 70 percent).

“And remember,” says Walsh, “this is only the Big Island we’re talking about.”


–Cover story published in The Honolulu Weekly on March 30, 2011–


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