Aquarium fishing ban proposed to aid bleached reefs

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Two state agencies, backed by environmental groups, are calling for a moratorium on the collection of aquarium fish — a proposal that is highlighting still-deep divisions over the harvesting of the fish for export and captivity.

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Two state agencies, backed by environmental groups, are calling for a moratorium on the collection of aquarium fish — a proposal that is highlighting still-deep divisions over the harvesting of the fish for export and captivity.

In a letter this week to Gov. David Ige and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Hawaii Office of Environmental Quality Control laid out the case for leaving beneficial fish on the reefs to help the coral ecosystems recover from record high sea temperatures.

The Environmental Council and at least 16 environmental groups support OEQC Director Jessica Wooley’s proposed 180-day ban, which she said would give DLNR time to assess reef health and work on solutions with aquarium fishermen.

The proposal surfaces as unprecedented coral bleaching makes Hawaii’s reefs vulnerable to weakening and die-off.

“The science and data now also show significant negative effects from nearshore commercial aquarium fishing throughout much of the Hawaiian Islands and the importance of protecting areas, at least for a period of time, to allow fish populations to recover,” Wooley’s letter states. “The urgency of this issue is increasing as scientific evidence has shown that the effects of coral bleaching can be ameliorated when there are robust herbivore reef fish populations.”

In a statement, DLNR said the Division of Aquatic Resources will carefully analyze the request based on the best science available.

Any ban would figure big in West Hawaii, whose reefs produce 70 percent of the fish gathered in the state.

Wednesday, West Hawaii aquarium collector David Dart was calling the moratorium a thinly veiled attempt to shut down his business and others like it.

“A moratorium like that would kill us,” he said.

Aquarium collectors with 41 permits took about 340,000 fish off of West Hawaii reefs last year, according to a DLNR report to the Legislature completed in December 2014. The level of harvest has varied, from a low of around 20,000 fish in 1980 to a high of 470,000 fish in 2006.

The statewide value of the industry stood at more than $2.3 million last year. There were 19 West Hawaii permit holders who took more than 10,000 yellow tang each, among other species.

That same report to the Legislature pointed to the success of a network of fish replenishment areas where collection is banned — implemented in 1999 and now comprising a third of the West Hawaii coastline.

“The FRAs have been very successful in increasing populations of yellow tang, which accounts for 84 percent of the total catch,” the report states. “Fifteen years after closure, the population of yellow tang has increased 64.5 percent in the FRAs, while its abundance in the open areas has not declined significantly.”

Kole — 8.3 percent of the catch — have also rebounded, according to DLNR. The population of those fish increased by 49 percent from 2000 to 2013, along the entire coastline in waters from 30 feet to 60 feet deep.

Rather than being wrapped into the coral bleaching issue, West Hawaii’s fish populations should set and example for what smart management can accomplish, Dart said.

“We have a super strong herbivore population out there thanks to the management areas,” Dart said.

But fishermen and fish protectors can’t seem to agree on what the numbers mean or what the studies really say as far fish population health.

“(The report) also finds that millions of yellow tang and kole are missing from the reefs, but you have to look at the graphs,” said Rene Umberger, executive director of For the Fishes, on Maui, in an email. “It is conveniently left out of the narrative.”

Umberger had her scuba regulator torn from her mouth in May 2014 by Ocean View aquarium collector Jay Lovell after she approached him while he collected fish in 50 feet of water off the Kona Coast. Lovell received a deferred six-month sentence on the charge of second-degree terroristic threatening. The incident spark the introduction of legislation to prevent the harassment of fishermen, but that bill failed to gain approval.

Dart, and Tina Owens, both members of the West Hawaii Fishery Council, say the push outlined in Wooley’s letter is just the latest effort by groups like Umberger’s that have been trying to orchestrate a ban for years.

Owens is director of the Lost Fish Coalition, which tried hard for a ban on aquarium fishing decades ago. Today, she no longer sees a need for a ban and instead supports management like the fish replenishment areas she helped foster.

“(Aquarium fish opponents) haven’t gotten traction with other efforts,” Owens said. “This is the new approach, with no data to back it up.”

Numerous pieces of legislation launched in recent years to ban aquarium fishing have failed to gain needed support at the capitol.

But Ginger Towle, president of the West Hawaii Humane Society, said the reefs must be protected with common sense measures while there is still a resource to protect.

“We feel this is valid. Many, many people have called me to support this,” Towle said. “If we don’t take advantage of the knowledge we have, the fish will be gone and people will ask, where did they go?”

Towle said places like Oahu — which has seen significant declines — must be taken into consideration, as well. West Hawaii reefs are known to be abundant compared with other areas in the state. The 2014 DLNR report found that 10 species most targeted for aquariums are significantly more abundant in open areas of West Hawaii compared with closed areas on Maui.

“Aquarium fishing has gone through management; we’re reaping the benefits now,” Dart said. “I’d love to take people out on my boat and show them the massive amounts of yellow tang.”

Dart said the bleaching is indeed on a scale he’s never witnessed.

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“It’s light color out there,” he said. “It’s not a good situation, and no one likes it. If we were doing massive harm out there I’d say say stop right now, but we’re not.”

Read the DLNR report at http://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dar/files/2015/01/ar_hrs188_2015.pdf.