Hawaii County Council committee postpones fish collection bill

Following a wave of testimony supporting new regulations on aquarium collectors, a County Council committee on Tuesday postponed action, saying more scientific information is needed before a bill is implemented.

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Following a wave of testimony supporting new regulations on aquarium collectors, a County Council committee on Tuesday postponed action, saying more scientific information is needed before a bill is implemented.

Most council members said, however, they would, if they could, favor a total ban on commercial aquarium fish collection.

“The science is one thing, but the fact that these are our public trust resources … I would support a ban too or a moratorium,” North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff. “Until the state is ready to take some serious measures, all we can do is one little step.”

Bill 318, sponsored by Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, prohibits the withholding of food for more than 24 hours, requires fish to be transported in a minimum of 1 gallon of water per fish and prohibits “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently carrying or causing to be carried in or upon any vehicle or other conveyance aquarium life within the County in a manner that is likely to result in the injury or death of the aquarium life.”

More than 85 testifiers spoke in person or submitted written testimony in favor of the bill. About 30 were opposed.

The council Committee on Agriculture, Water and Energy Sustainability postponed the measure to the call of the chairman, indicating the new council will likely take it up after it is seated next month.

“I don’t want to hear about the scientific stuff, because I don’t believe we should be shipping our fish out,” said Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter. “These are our resources that people are taking for free. … What are we doing to our island?”

“There’s a lot of emotion here … I know we as a county can’t outlaw the aquarium trade because it is state jurisdiction,” added Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha, asking for more time to study the issue.

Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan saw an ulterior motive in the bill. He also asked for more time.

“I really don’t have the background of the industry,” Ilagan said. “It’s really a different method of banning in having additional expenses so the industry doesn’t survive.”

The reality is, there are fewer fish on the reef, Wille said.

“I know it’s not just the aquarium trade (causing fish decline), but you’ve got to start somewhere,” said Wille.

Violators would be charged with a petty misdemeanor and subject to fines up to $1,000 or 30 days in jail, or both.

Advocates say the measure is needed because too many fish are being taken from Hawaii Island’s reefs for out-of-state aquarium hobbyists and too few survive the trip.

Inga Gibson, Hawaii senior state director for state affairs for the Humane Society of the United States, said statistics support increased regulation of aquarium fish collection. She said 5 percent of fish are dead on arrival at their destinations and up to 15 percent die in the first two weeks.

“These fish are being treated like cut flowers,” Gibson said. “When they die, you just collect another one.”

Opponents of the measure, including representatives from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council and area fish collectors, dispute the mortality numbers, saying they are taken from an old study in the Philippines and Indonesia and have no bearing on current fish collection practices in the United States.

Withholding food clears the digestive system, prevents fouling of the water and ammonia stress to fish, bill opponents said. They said requiring a gallon of water per fish is an arbitrary amount, because fish sizes vary and the added water could leave less room for oxygen.

“The preparation and shipping of live animals is not conducted in a vacuum,” said N. Marshall Meyers, chairman of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council’s Live Animal Board’s Advisory Committee. “Contrary to some beliefs of anti-trade activists supporting Bill 318, neither shippers nor airlines dealing with live animal transport prosper economically by transporting sick, dying or dead animals.”

The bill exempts Native Hawaiians using fish for cultural purposes, government and nonprofits using fish for educational purposes, provided they are not sold, and any fish at county airports in transit that do not leave the airport.

The bill brought philosophical arguments to the surface.

“Who owns the reef wildlife on the Big Island,” asked Robert Whitner, the “Snorkel Bob,” of the dive shops by that name. “Does the economic benefit of a few trump reef health and the benefit of the community?”

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Whitner characterized the aquarium collectors as “boo-hoo bears” worrying about their profit margins.

“While I feel the aquarium trade should be banned, this bill is a good start toward compassionate treatment for our precious reef fishes that deserve aloha too,” added Nakoa Nelson, of Kailua-Kona.

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