My Turn: We expect better

Last month, the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) unanimously rejected the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) on aquarium collecting in West Hawaii. What is particularly distressing and demoralizing about the BLNR decision was that it clearly was not based on the best available science and relevant monitoring data. Other than a single preliminary question, neither the chairperson nor board members asked any questions or solicited any input from the four Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) staff members, including three aquatic biologists, who attended the meeting. The DAR staff certainly could have provided science-based information and background on the issues being discussed and used as rationale for the FEIS denial.

For example, Chairwoman Suzanne Case stated that a lack of data regarding the number of fish that would be collected was of particular concern and there really are no limits on the numbers that can be taken. DAR has over 40 years of West Hawaii aquarium catch and permit data and it is clear that the amount of catch has tightly tracked the number of collectors. Catch and the number of permits have been significantly correlated so there is little justification to assume that there are no limits on the number of fish that would be taken given that the FEIS suggests limiting the number of permit holders to 10. Based on the clear evidence from the existing dataset, the projected total yearly take by these 10 aquarium permit holders would be substantially less than the take by the yearly average of 49 permit holders working in the period since the no-aquarium collecting Fish Replenishment Areas (FRA) were established in 1999.

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Similarly, concern was expressed about the threat of climate changes such as coral bleaching on reefs, which thus warrants extreme caution in reviewing activities such as aquarium collecting. This concern over coral bleaching is certainly warranted but somewhat surprising given that the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) leadership has not implemented the 2017 Coral Bleaching Recovery Plan which was developed by DAR and the University of Hawaii based on the input of over 100 scientists and resource managers from around the world. The goal of the plan was to implement management actions to promote coral recovery after bleaching in Hawaii and the scope of the plan was much more comprehensive than just focusing on aquarium collecting.

The chairperson and the board also had issues with the aquarium take of Achilles tang referring to it as highly depleted. Aquarium fishers in West Hawaii are the only ones in Hawaii who have a bag limit for this species (10 fish/person/day). This limit was based on an earlier effort to implement islandwide size and bag limits for a wide range of fish species for which there were management and community concerns. A total of 15 public meetings involving over 380 people were conducted from January to June 2009 and a consensus was achieved on the management rules. All this effort was thrown asunder when the DLNR chairperson at the time refused to allow implementation of the rules.

The 1998 law, which established the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area (WHRFMA), required the DLNR/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. To accomplish this, DAR in association with the University of Hawaii at Hilo, established a rigorous, scientific monitoring program in 1999 to track changes in reef fish populations and coral reef benthic communities. Over the past 20 years, 82 survey divers have conducted over 2,100 underwater surveys for this monitoring project. Additionally, a number of other scientists have conducted research in West Hawaii relating to aquarium issues and/or targeted species.

The monitoring data show that the regulations put in place have been very effective in managing aquarium collecting in West Hawaii. The West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area is among the best studied and most effective fishery management efforts to date, and scientific data clearly show that management is working with population increases of the primary targets. For example, as noted in the 2019 DLNR/DAR legislative report, the populations of the two most heavily collected species of West Hawaii aquarium fish, yellow tang and kole, which collectively made up 92% of total aquarium catch in (fiscal year 2017-18), more than doubled over the past two decades. Their populations even increased in the areas open to collecting likely due to spillover from protected areas.

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As experienced Hawaii marine science researchers with a direct/intimate understanding of this issue, we find the disregard for the science-based management initiatives of DAR and island communities demoralizing and counterproductive. We expect better from DLNR leadership. We want to re-emphasize that the strong support we are expressing for this fishery is due entirely to the survey efforts and results of the DAR research team. There is a huge amount of data and other information showing that the aquarium fishery is sustainably managed and that the system works. This type of science-based management should be a model for other fisheries in Hawaii. The truth is out there, it needs to be embraced.

William Walsh Ph.D., Ivor Williams Ph.D., Brian Tissot Ph.D.; Leon Hallacher Ph.D.; Bruce Carlson Ph.D.; Charles Birkeland Ph.D.; Jeremy Claisse Ph.D.; Mark Christie Ph.D.; Richard Pyle Ph.D.; Leighton Taylor Ph.D.; Randy Kosaki Ph.D.; Cynthia Hunter Ph.D.; Brian Bowen Ph.D.; Brian Zgliczynski Ph.D.; Jeff Ebel Ph.D.; Alan Friedlander Ph.D.; Kosta Stamoulis Ph.D.; Delisse Ortiz Ph.D.; Jan Dierking Ph.D.; Rob Toonen Ph.D.; and Jim Beets Ph.D.