Better Managed O‘ahu Marine Aquarium Fishery Won’t Appease Some Against the Trade

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Oahu Hawaii (Photo by Ret Talbot)While the focus has been on the Big Island marine aquarium fishery as of late (owing largely to the October passage of Hawai‘i County Council Resolution 130-11 advocating a state-wide ban on the marine aquarium trade), Big Island’s fishery is by no means the entire marine aquarium fishery in Hawai‘i. The aquarium trade in Hawai‘i started on O‘ahu, and the O‘ahu marine aquarium fishery is still a major player representing about one-quarter of the total value of aquarium collection statewide. While Big Island’s fishery dwarfs O‘ahu’s fishery in sheer numbers of yellow tang harvested, the O‘ahu fishery contributes many of the other Hawaiian fishes with which aquarists are familiar. According to the State, the O‘ahu fishery provides direct jobs to about 40 commercial fishers and indirectly supports retail pet stores, aquarium wholesalers, and other support service businesses.  

O‘ahu’s aquarium fishery has not been nearly as contentious as the Big Island fishery, leading some observers to express surprise at the State’s recent announcement that it is considering a suite of new regulations for the O‘ahu fishery. According to state officials, the O‘ahu aquarium fishery is well managed and requires no additional regulation at this time in order to be considered a sustainable fishery. So why these proposed regulations now?
 
Proposed Regulations 
 
The proposed regulations are the usual sort one expects to see when it comes to managing a fishery. We’re largely talking about bag limits, size limits and gear restrictions (see my previous article for the specifics). While there is some debate about the regulations themselves (I’ll try to address some of those concerns in a later post), the larger issue for those seeking to end the trade is that the regulations were proposed to the State by a group of aquarium trade individuals (e.g., fishers, wholesalers, etc.) not a state agency charged with managing the resource. 
 
There are two ways to look at this. 
 
On the one hand, aquarium industry members proposing regulations can be seen as an example of stakeholders being proactive—something Big Island fishers have consistently been accused of not doing effectively. Alternatively, the fishers’ actions can be viewed as an example of the sort of self-serving self regulation anti-trade activists claim has led to what they believe is an unethical and unsustainable trade, and this is the argument currently gaining the most traction amongst those against the trade. 
 
While it’s true the industry members involved are being positively proactive, it’s also not a stretch to argue that, because they have a monetary stake in the fishery, they are in no position to propose regulations that will likely have an impact on their earnings. This is, not surprisingly, exactly the argument anti-trade activists like Robert Wintner, Maui resident and owner of Snorkel Bob’s, have made. After all, shouldn’t management of the resource be handled by an unbiased governmental organization charged with sustainably managing those resources held in public trust? 
 
Actually it is.
 
The Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) announced recently it would hold a public meeting on 17 November “to discuss possible regulations on the taking of marine life for aquariums from the waters around O‘ahu.” DLNR is the governmental body in Hawai‘i, which, according to DLNR’s mission statement, is charged with managing Hawai‘i’s natural resources for current and future generations. These resources include the State’s fisheries. Any proposed regulations on the marine aquarium fishery would need to move through DLNR before being enacted. In other words, while the proposed regulations have been brought to DLNR by commercial fishers and others with a monetary stake in the fishery, the rule-making process will be handled through a process similar to the one utilized in managing numerous other resources in the State. As one DLNR official told me, “This is the way management is done regardless of whether we’re talking about land-based or ocean-based resources.”
 
DLNR’s Involvement Provides Little Comfort to Anti-Trade Activists
 
The fact that DLNR will not adopt the fisher-proposed regulations without due process is little comfort to anti-trade activists for two primary reasons. First, as I’ve discussed before and will address again, they don’t view the fishery as a fishery.
 
Second, they don’t trust DLNR.
 
“DLNR views the aquarium trade as a fishery and therein mismanages the habitat and critters to benefit a very few interests,” wrote Wintner in a recent Honolulu Star Advertiser editorial. Wintner claims DLNR itself, along with “a handful of collectors,” is one of the “interests” that benefits from what he views as the mismanagement of the resource. According to Wintner, said mismanagement comes “at the expense of everyone else in Hawai‘i, including the host culture, tourism, residents and, yes, conservationists.” Wintner has long contended DLNR is far from an unbiased player in the debate surrounding the aquarium trade, but those allegations are far beyond the scope of this entry. 
 
If It’s Not Broken…
 
DLNR, in its capacity as fishery manager, contends the “data indicates that the [aquarium] fishery is currently being fished sustainably.” Nonetheless, DLNR chairperson William Aila Jr. applauds the type of proactive collaboration between resource users and resource managers evidenced by the proposed regulations.
 
“The people who fish for a living have a vested interest in seeing that the resources they depend on are managed well,” says Aila. “These fishers are a tremendous source of knowledge and experience that we need to help us better manage these resources. We appreciate that they wish to work with us to develop potential regulations that will have a lasting, positive impact on the aquatic resources around O‘ahu.” 
 
Industry members on O‘ahu including Randy Fernley, owner of Coral Fish Hawai‘i in Aiea, and Matt Ross, an O‘ahu fisher, approached DLNR with the proposed regulations months ago. The model of collaboration between resource user and resource manager seems a step in the right direction to many familiar with the complexities of managing an entity as multifaceted as a fishery—especially a reef fishery. 
 
“We approached the department with hopes to instill self-imposed regulations that will satisfy both the department and the industry,” says Fernley. 
 
In a series of meetings spanning a period of months, fishers and DLNR officials worked together to come up with the proposal that is now on the table for discussion. 
 
“We want to make the industry stronger and the fisheries stronger,” Fernley says. 
 
While the specific proposal is the result of recent meetings, the proposed regulations are rooted in many years of dialogue between industry members and DLNR. Lines of communication were opened following the failure of 2008’s SB3225, which is frequently referred to as “the original Snorkel Bob Bill.” At the time, the Legislature replaced SB3225 with HCR 347. “That resolution requested DLNR to work with the fishermen to
create better regulations for Oahu and Maui,” an O‘ahu fisher close to the situation told me. “We had made a promise to the legislature and wanted to keep our word. Due to various problems, little progress was made until this year.”
 
Many others agree this is a good move on behalf of the O‘ahu fishers and others involved in the trade. Collaboration can yield positive outcomes both in terms of the resource and the general perception of the trade. “They’re taking a step in trying to make their industry a more respectable and responsible industry,” Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) aquatic biologist Alton Miyasaka was quoted as saying in a recent Star Advertiser article. “The department appreciates the effort to do that.”
 
Self Preservation in the Face of Draconian Measures?
 
Of course nobody is suggesting the efforts of the fishers are completely altruistic, especially in the face of ever-increasing anti-trade initiatives such as Resolution 130-11. “This [proposal] was initiated by fishers,” says Ross. “We realized it was better for us to propose limits on our own industry proactively rather than draw things out and potentially get stuck with some draconian rules down the road.” Most of the fishers I interviewed expressed the belief the regulations, once enacted, would negatively impact their income in the short term. Many of them, like Ross, think it’s worth it.
 
The momentum gained by the passage of Resolution 130-11 makes it clear “draconian measures” are not off the table, especially now that State Senator Malama Solomon, Ph.D, announced at a recent DLNR listening meeting in Kohala she will be introducing a bill to give control over fishing rights to the counties. Passage of such a bill might make it possible for the Hawai‘i County Council that passed resolution 130-11 to directly impose a ban on Big Island.
 
Like a fisher told me following the Council vote on 130-11, “If a resolution advocating a statewide ban on the marine aquarium trade can pass in the face of overwhelming data supporting the sustainability of the trade, then we know we have no choice but to be proactive.”
 
Back to Basics—Is a Fishery a Fishery?
 
Of course anti-trade activists aren’t impressed with the bridge building occurring between DLNR and commercial aquarium fishers on O‘ahu, and they certainly don’t think the proposed regulations will do anything to change their stance on the trade. Why?
 
Even if one removes politics, allegations of backroom deals and what Wintner and others paint as the Aloha equivalent of an entrenched Good Ole Boy network, the anti-trade rhetoric would still criticize DLNR’s management of the marine aquarium fishery in Hawai‘i on the grounds they do not view it as a fishery. This position means no amount of regulation short of a complete ban will suffice. It is the reason these activists have come out against the rules package soon to be enacted for the Big Island fishery, and it’s why they are now coming out against these proposed rules for the O‘ahu fishery.
 
They Want No Fishery at All
 
They don’t want a better-managed fishery—they want no fishery at all, and the fact industry members on O‘ahu are being proactive is a clear threat to a no-take agenda. Most people appreciate that a fishery, be it a food fishery or an aquarium fishery, can be sustainably fished through science-based adaptive management, and that’s what the trade members who proposed these regulations are seeking. Are these proposed regulations self-serving? Perhaps, but only insofar as they better protect the resource upon which the industry depends and portray the resource users as genuinely engaged in good management. As one fisher told me about the proposed regulations:
 
“The regulations actually will impact our income,” he said. “The yellow tang and potter’s angel bag limits will personally affect me a great deal. However, we feel it’s worth it because sustainability and a better industry will be worth it in the long run. Even without these regulations, we still have to limit ourselves when we’re fishing because it’s the right thing to do. Anti-fishing types like to portray us as caring only about money but that’s not how we really are.”