Recently, there was a Letter to the Editor saying that the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) made a good decision to reject the EIS concerning aquarium fishing. I know a great deal about this subject having spent 22-plus years on the issue.
I personally do not think the BLNR made a good decision and I’ll tell you why.
Twenty-two years ago, my husband, Bob Owens, and I formed a group called the LOST FISH Coalition, out of concern for the then completely unregulated and unstudied collection of reef fishes for the aquarium trade. Long story short, we eventually got a law passed (Act 306 1998) that established the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area (WHRFMA) along the entire western coastline of the Big Island. In addition, the law required the establishment of areas where collecting aquarium fish was prohibited, and also resulted in the formation of the West Hawaii Fishery Council, made up of volunteer stakeholders representing the various groups that had an interest in our local reefs.
Since the establishment of the WHFC in 1998, more than 80 dedicated community members have spent in excess of 5,000 of hours, all unpaid, not only to set up regulation of the aquarium industry in West Hawaii but also to assist DAR in developing rules for laynetting, spearfishing on SCUBA and a host of other actions to benefit the our reefs. More than 2,000 community members have participated in monthly WHFC meetings over the years.
In addition, the law required the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ (DLNR) Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) to present a report to the legislature every five years on the effectiveness of the WHRFMA. To do so it was necessary to study how the new regulations were working. The DAR in association with the University of Hawaii at Hilo, immediately established rigorous, scientific monitoring studies to track changes in reef fish populations. Since 1998, DAR has collected massive amounts of data, which show that the regulations put in place have been very effective in managing aquarium collecting in West Hawaii. The fact is that populations of the two most sought after species in the West Hawaii aquarium fishery have increased substantially over time. Anyone who tells you differently is misinformed.
If the fishery is not permitted and regulated, what will likely happen is that the fishers will begin to poach. We have already seen the beginning of this poaching activity and if they’re going to poach, why follow any of the other regulations such as the no-collecting areas, bag limits, species limits? When poaching occurs all the data becomes irrelevant because there is no “closed” area to compare to an “open” area. Twenty-two years of work down the drain and the reefs once again subject to lawlessness.
We had convinced the aquarium fishers that following the rules would result in more fish and they agreed. By far most of them were in compliance with the rules. Now the entire system that many hundreds of our community members have set up and followed and protected will be gone. The reef management system that proved to be one of the most successful in the world, studied by fishery scientists from all over, collapses.
Tina Owens is executive director of the LOST FISH Coalition