Increasing Yellow Tang Abundance in West Hawai‘i and Resolution 130’s Relationship with the Data

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While some anti-trade activists have alluded to “other data” contradicting the data put forth by the state aquatic biologist Dr. William Walsh, I learned in my interview last Thursday with County Council Member Brenda Ford, who authored 130, that she believes Walsh’s data is sufficient to warrant a statewide ban.    I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend the better part of a day with Walsh while I was in Hawai‘i researching the story for MASNA and Coral Magazine. An edited (for space) version of my interview with Walsh will published in the Nov/Dec issue of Coral (the full interview will be available online), but I’d like to share a few highlights from the interview here.   An Apparent Flip-Flop on Management of the Marine Aquarium Fishery in Hawai‘i   Despite the apparent flip-flop of the Hawai‘i County Council from supporting the fishery management tools proposed last September and opposing a ban late this September to voting in favor of a ban in early October 2011, Walsh told me “nothing fundamental has changed since last year.” If anything, we know more about the fishery today, and there is more data to support Walsh’s assertion the fishery is moving in the direction of one that is well managed and sustainable.   So how is it Council Member Brenda Ford, the author of Resolution 130, claims Walsh’s data shows “devastation” necessitating a statewide ban on aquarium collection? The answer, I think, is quite simple. As I reported previously, many opponents of the aquarium fishery refuse to call the marine aquarium fishery a fishery, and Ford is no exception. As such, for Ford and others like Robert Wintner (aka Snorkel Bob), the commonly accepted litmus test for fishery sustainability (or lack thereof) does not apply. While I believe Ford’s assertion of devastation is worth exploring (the reefs of Hawai’i certainly are being heavily impacted by a wide range of anthropogenic stressors), it does not appear to be an assertion about sustainability using traditional fisheries management language.   A Fishery is a Fishery   Using the standard definition of a fishery widely accepted by fisheries biologists and others who manage and create legislation to manage fisheries, a marine aquarium fishery is really no different from a food fishery in terms of how it is defined and how sustainability is determined. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law governing marine fisheries management in the United States (primarily in federal waters), asserts a fishery is “one or more stocks of fish which can be treated as a unit for purposes of conservation and management and which are identified on the basis of geographical, scientific, technical, recreational, and economic characteristic.” Likewise, according to the Magnuson-Stevens Act, “the term fishing means the catching, taking, or harvesting of fish.” Hawaii Administrative Rule 13-74 likewise defines fishing as “catching, taking, or harvesting, or attempting to catch, take, or harvest, aquatic life. The use of a pole, line, hook, net, trap, spear, or other gear which is designed to catch, take, or harvest aquatic life, by any person who is in he water, or in a vessel on the water, or on or about the shore where aquatic life can be caught…”   If we can agree the marine aquarium fishery is indeed a fishery (and that marine aquarium collectors are indeed fishers), then we can get down to brass tacks and ask the real question: Is the marine aquarium trade in West Hawai‘i being fished sustainably?    The Magnuson-Stevens Act, states “the terms ‘overfishing’ and ‘overfished’ mean a rate or level of fishing mortality that jeopardizes the capacity of a fishery to produce the maximum sustainable yield on a continuing basis.” Is that what is happening on the reefs of Hawai‘i? Here is some data that may help us to answer that question. Everything below in quotation marks is a direct quotation from Walsh based on the data collected by DAR staff biologists and others along the Big Island’s Kona Coast.    “In 2010 over 430,000 animals were collected on West Hawai‘i reefs with yellow tang comprising 81 percent of the catch,” says Walsh. “From 1999, when we began WHAP [the West Hawai‘i Aquarium Project], to 2010 the number of collected yellow tang increased from 165,254 to 311,480—an increase of about 88 percent.”   “From 1999 to 2010 the yellow tang population of mostly immature fish in the 30’-60’ depth range in West Hawai‘i increased from an estimated 2,236,858 to 2,573,909, an increase of 337,050 or slightly more than 15 percent. [For reasons explained in the full interview in Coral Magazine, that 15 percent statistic likely underestimates the West Hawai‘i yellow tang population increase since 1999.].”    “Over this same time frame the number of collected yellow tangs has increased 88 percent. So while yellow tang take has increased along the coast over the past decade, the total abundance of yellow tangs has also increased.”   That Surely Doesn’t Look Like Devastation   That surely doesn’t look like devastation—in fact, it might even look like categorical sustainability everyone could embrace…except for the fact the data, averaged over the last three years, shows 68-percent less abundance of yellow tang in open areas compared to FRAs. Walsh told me this number concerns him, and opponents of the trade use this abundance differential statistic frequently to argue management is not working.   According to the data, the yellow tang is one of only six species on the proposed white list to show a consistently lower abundance in open areas than closed areas. Unlike the other five species, which show more variability, from 1999 to 2008 the disparity between the abundance of yellow tang in open areas and FRAs generally widened. Following a good recruitment year (and possibly recession impacts) the disparity has started to narrow in 2009 and 2010.    I asked Walsh what he thought of the oft-cited disparity statistic, which is frequently used by opponents of the marine aquarium fishery. While Walsh says this number does concern him, and he says he wants to reduce it, he also points out the following:   “It is important to note that a large part of the difference in yellow tang abundance between the FRAs and the open areas relates to the fact that yellow tang abundance has increased so much in the FRAs—it’s up 71 percent since 1999. The protected areas are working very well. During this same time period the open areas have decreased by 19 percent [and] this is where the fishing—at increasing levels—occurs.”    “Even if there was no decline in open area yellow tang abundance,” Walsh continues, “the difference between those areas and the FRAs would be substantial just due to the increased numbers of fish in the protected FRAs. Overall, on West Hawai‘i reefs as a whole, yellow tang populations have increased by 15 percent in the 30’-60’ depths since 1999.”   Other Species of Concern   For the record, I want to be very clear there are other targeted species to consider besides the yellow tang, but the yellow tang is the vast majority of the catch and it is the species that gets a lot of the airtime, so it’s a good place to start. In a future post, I’ll share some of the data showing downward trends in a few of the species currently targeted by the marine aquarium fishery on the Kona Coast of the Big Island. I assume these are the species, in addition to the yellow tang, about which Council Member Ford was speaking. I’ll also let you know what Walsh shared with me about the proposed management for those species.    Spoiler alert: While there are indeed some downward trends in Walsh’s data, there is nothing I have seen leading me to conclude the fishery cannot be managed in a sustainable manner if we use science-based management and the widely accepted language of fisheries management.    

Resolution 130 – What’s It Really All About?

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When, in early October 2011, County of Hawai’i Resolution 130-11 seeking the statewide ban on marine aquarium collection passed the Hawai’i County Council by a vote of six to two, people on both sides of the debate admitted surprise. They were perhaps most surprised because Resolution 140-11, a nearly identical resolution, failed to pass the same County Council in late September 2011.  In fact, this is the reason many of the pro-trade individuals I have interviewed this past week say they did not attend the council meeting. “After 140 passed on the merits of science,” one marine aquarium fisher told me, “most of us assumed 130 was a slam dunk.” What happened?   First the basics. Resolution 130-11 is:   “A resolution requesting the Legislature of the State of Hawai’i to amend chapter 188, Hawai’i Revised Statutes, by adding a new section to be appropriately designated prohibiting the sale of aquatic life for aquarium purposes…”   Fundamentally, the Bill for an Act Relating to Prohibition on Sale of Aquatic Life for Aquarium Purposes advocated in Resolution 130-11 is not a lot different from other bills, which have failed at the state level (most recently SB 580 earlier this year). Most people expect this bill will fail as well if it even gets out of committee.   Resolution 130-11 begins with its primary justification for prohibiting the sale of aquatic life for aquarium purposes, which is that “[T]he aquatic life of the reefs within the state of Hawai’i are being devastated by the collection of reef fish and other aquatic life…” In the justification sheet accompanying the bill, it is emphatically stated that  “[c]ollection of our reef fish, even endangered species, has devastated our marine resources…. Scientific studies have shown that many species of fish are not recovering from the heavy collection of aquatic life even though 30% of the reef in West Hawai’i is in Fish Replenishment Areas.”   In short, the argument put forth by Resolution 130-11 is clear: the resource (i.e., the reefs of Hawai’i) is being devastated by the marine aquarium fishery. Full stop. In County Council testimony, personal communication and on-the-record interviews, Dr. William Walsh, aquatic biologist for the State of Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), has stated “this is not devastation.” While Walsh has always advocated in conversations with me for better science-based management and regulation of the marine aquarium fishery, he simply does not agree with the central premise behind Resolution 130-11, nor does the available data support the justifications presented for it.   Council Member Brenda Ford who authored Resolution 130-11 apparently also believes she has the science to back up the Resolution’s claim of “devastation.” As the Resolution states, “…scientific research proves that collection of reef fish diminishes the number of fish reaching reproductive age….” While it’s true that Walsh’s data does show there are less marine aquarium target species in areas open to marine aquarium collectors than in areas closed to the marine aquarium fishery, this should not really surprise anyone. A fishery, by its very definition, removes animals from the ecosystem. The purpose of setting up the protected areas (called Fish Replenishment Areas or FRAs—FRAs currently encompass 35% of the Kona Coast, not 30%) is to bolster fish populations in these areas and provide for spillover into adjacent areas. The FRAs also serve as excellent control area for data collection.    Resolution 130-11 does acknowledge some reef fish populations are increasing even with current levels of collection, but it also states, “specific species have not increased in numbers.” This is true. But it is also true that some of those species (e.g., saddle wrasses) numbers are declining as a result of something besides the aquarium trade and some of these species are being impacted by cumulative pressure from the aquarium fishery and recreational fisheries (e.g., Achilles tang). It’s interesting to note that while the yellow tang remains the number one priority in terms of managing the fishery due to the fact it is far and away the most collected marine aquarium species in the State, the Kona Coast population of yellow tang has actually increased in size over the past 12 years, even as pressure from the marine aquarium fishery has increased.   Really? The abundance of yellow tang is on the rise even as fishing pressure has increased?   As Walsh shared with me during this trip, from 1999 to 2010 the yellow tang population of mostly immature fish in 30’ to 60’ depth range increased from an estimated 2,236,858 (1999) to 2,573,909 (2010). That is an increase of 337,050 (about 15 percent). As Walsh points out, this only represents a portion of the population, as there are yellow tangs deeper than 60’, and the bulk of the larger breeding population is in shallower waters. While the same data set does not exist for the breeding population of yellow tang, it can be assumed that the breeding population has increased in size also, as they are not targeted for food or by the marine aquarium fishery. “Thus,” says Walsh, “the 15 percent likely substantially underestimates the West Hawai’i yellow tang population increase since 1999.” Within protected areas the increase in yellow tang population has been much greater.   “Over this same time frame the number of collected yellow tangs,” adds Walsh, “has increased from 165,254 in FY 1999 to 311,480 in FY 2010.” That’s an increase of approximately 88 percent. In short, yellow tang take has increased over the past 12 years, but so too has the total abundance of yellow tangs on the reefs of Big Island’s Kona Coast. Is this proof positive for a move toward better fishery management and a more sustainable fishery?     I’ll get into the numbers regarding other species in a later piece, but the fact of the matter is that the state aquatic biologists who have collected data along the Kona Coast for decades now do not feel any one species targeted by the marine aquarium fishery is in such trouble that the entire fishery should be banned. “We need better management,” Walsh told me, “but there is no evidence to suggest we need something as Draconian as a ban.”    Walsh and a core group of aquarium fishers and other stakeholders have crafted mutually agreed upon additional science-based management in the form of bag and slot limits for heavily targeted species and a 40-species white list. These management tools are set to come into effect probably by early next year. The County Council that passed Resolution 130 knows this, for they voted last year in favor of a resolution (Resolution 308-10) specifically supporting the additional regulations and supporting in general “the effective management of the West Hawai’i aquarium industry.” With no data from the intervening year to suggest a ban is immediately necessary it is indeed surprising the County Council voted in favor of Resolution 130-11.   …that is unless you know more about the backstory. Stay tuned.   

Framing the Debate over the Marine Aquarium Fishery in Hawai’i

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  As I looked out this morning over gentle swells sweeping in against the lava shoreline of the Kona Coast of the Big Island, it was hard to reconcile the peaceful tranquility I observed with the ongoing battles over the resource about which I have been writing. A full day of interviews, observing County Council testimony and exchanging emails with people on both sides of the debate, however, makes it crystal clear West Hawai’i is indeed a battleground. My role in this is as observer, and this trip is a fact-finding mission attempting to answer one simple question: Is the marine aquarium trade here well-managed and sustainable, or is collection for the aquarium trade responsible for, as the most recent resolution seeking to ban the trade statewide claims, the “devastation” of the reefs just beneath those gentle swells? read more

Increasing Yellow Tang Abundance in West Hawai‘i and Resolution 130’s Relationship with the Data

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While some anti-trade activists have alluded to “other data” contradicting the data put forth by the state aquatic biologist Dr. William Walsh, I learned in my interview last Thursday with County Council Member Brenda Ford, who authored 130, that she believes Walsh’s data is sufficient to warrant a statewide ban.  I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend the better part of a day with Walsh while I was in Hawai‘i researching the story for MASNA and Coral Magazine. An edited (for space) version of my interview with Walsh will published in the Nov/Dec issue of Coral (the full interview will be available online), but I’d like to share a few highlights from the interview here. read more

Why We Need Science-Based Management of the Marine Aquarium Fishery in West Hawai’i

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  Will the marine aquarium trade in Hawai’i emerge a model of a robust and sustainable commercial fishery, or will the legislative efforts of those against aquarium collection in Hawai’i become the blueprint for federal policy on the trade? That is the question with which I ended my last entry, and that is exactly what I think is at stake.    As someone personally involved with fisheries in numerous ways, including as a recreational fisher, a consumer of seafood, a marine aquarist, and a journalist who covers these and other fisheries issues, I believe in the possibility of well-managed sustainable fisheries. In order to manage a fishery well, however, you need to either have a deep, and often times first hand, experience with the resource and the resource users, or you need data. In the case of the former in Hawai’i, the ancient Hawaiians lived by ahupua’a, a system of sustainable resource management usually encompassing a watershed extending from mountains to sea. Within the ahupua’a, the kapu (taboo) system was administered by priests and, among other things, set limits on where one could fish, for what one could fish when and for how one could fish. While these early fishery management decisions were not based on scientific data per se, they were closely linked to fishing pressure, the spawn, fish migratory patterns and the like. Under the ahupua’a system, the fishery was managed in a sustainable fashion.   Today resource use issues and rights are far more complex than they were in ancient times. Advances in transportation allow various resource users to move quickly from one area to the next, and advances in fishing technology mean even a single recreational angler can have a measurable impact on many reefs within a fairly wide range of where he or she lives. When it comes to commercial fishing, be it for food or aquarium collection, the impacts can quickly become exponential. Add to this that, especially in a place like Hawai’i, more and more people are using the resource (e.g., dive operators, beachgoers, recreational boaters, surfers, etc.), and the result is increased conflict between stakeholders who have different relationships with the resource. To complicate matters further, terrestrial development is increasingly impacting non-terrestrial resources.   What I have consistently observed while researching the marine aquarium fishery along the Kona Coast of Hawai’i is user conflict based on wildly varying perceptions of how the resource can be used, how it should be used and what the results of current usage are. Earlier in this post, I said that in order to manage a fishery well, you need to either have a deep, and often times first hand, experience with the resource and the resource users or you need data. While I understand how someone who dives daily on a particular reef, be it for recreation or commercial fishing, may feel he or she has a deep, firsthand experience with the resource which gives the diver the authority to speak comprehensively about the resource, the fact of the matter is that the sheer number of users and the myriad impacts—everything from anthropogenic stressors to natural cycles—make it near impossible for one individual’s experience to accurately quantify and qualify the health of a fishery.    And yet that is exactly the type of anecdotal evidence that continues to fuel the debate here on the Big Island and elsewhere in Hawai’i. If I had a dollar for every time a person against the trade said something like, “I know what’s going on because I’ve been diving this reef for twenty years, and now the fish are all gone,” I’d be a very rich man. Likewise, I’d take a buck for every time someone in support of the aquarium fishery told me they have been collecting in a given area for more than two decades and nothing has changed.    Decisions about the Big Island’s marine aquarium fishery, and any other heavily exploited fishery for that matter, need to be managed based on data, not opinion. In the case of the marine aquarium fishery in West Hawai’i, that data exists. In fact, this is one of the most studied commercial fisheries in the State, and the State’s aquatic biologists are working with all stakeholders to insure appropriate management is put in place so that, to return to where I began, the marine aquarium trade in Hawai’i can emerge a model of a robust and sustainable commercial fishery.