Concerns Linger as Kaua‘i Anti-Aquarium Measures Reach Hawai‘i’s Legislature

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Hawaii State House. All Rights Reserved - Ret Talbot Eighteen aquarium-related measures have been introduced to the State of Hawai‘i’s twenty-sixth legislative session. Seven of them are new bills, four are new resolutions, and the rest are measures carried over from 2011. Of the new bills, two—SB2042 and HB1780—attempt to ban the marine aquarium trade statewide, and both are the result of a vote that took place on Kaua‘i in November. Of the new resolutions—SR2, SCR1, HR6 and HCR8—all four seek to shut down the trade statewide, and all four are also a direct result of the November Kaua‘i vote. Why does this association with Kaua‘i matter? It matters because there were serious concerns about the Kaua‘i vote in November, and it’s important to make sure those concerns are still present now that these measures—which represent more than half of the new measures introduced—are at the state level.

First a little background. With a unanimous vote, Kaua‘i became the second county in Hawai‘i to vote in favor of a resolution urging the State to ban the marine aquarium trade. The first vote had taken place on Big Island, where Resolution 130 passed the County Council. The Kaua‘i resolution was brought to the Council by Councilmember KipuKai Kuali‘I, who told me the Resolution he introduced on Kaua‘i was the same as the one introduced on Big Island.

The reason for the near identical bills?

Simple. The individuals who drafted and promoted Kaua‘i’s bill were the same people who drafted and promoted Resolution 130. This, in and of itself, is not terribly concerning, as it is common practice for individuals or groups passionate about a cause to help craft legislation, which they then champion through the legislative process. What is concerning is that, in the case of the Kaua‘i vote, the councilmembers who voted in favor of the Resolution did so without performing any modicum of due diligence regarding the Resolution’s central tenets.

Claims of Devastation

At the heart of the Kaua‘i resolution is a statement ascribing blame to the marine aquarium trade for the devastation of Hawai‘i’s reefs. Hawai‘i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), and specifically its Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), is the state agency charged with preserving Hawai‘i’s natural resources—including Hawai‘i’s reefs—for the benefit of future generations. As such, it seems logical the Council would have wanted to know DLNR’s position regarding any claim made by concerned citizens about the resource. Unfortunately, the Council did not seek that information or, apparently, any information beyond what was presented to them by the Resolution’s champions, most of who are not even from Kaua‘i. Why did the Council not seek DLNR’s opinion on a resolution having to do with a resource over which the Council has no direct control? As Kuali‘i explained to me, after telling me he had seen nothing from DLNR prior to the vote, “I’m sure they would be heard from at the [Legislature].”

When I pointed out to Kuali‘i it was a matter of public record that several of the statements and some data presented during public testimony before the vote on the Kaua‘i resolution had been flatly refuted by DAR, Kuali‘i responded saying, “I’m always open to more info and data. To date, I haven’t received anything from DAR refuting the data. Please share if you have.” In response, I forwarded along DAR’s Dr. William Walsh’s written public testimony against the near identical Big Island resolution.

And then—despite numerous requests for Kuali‘i’s thoughts on Walsh’s testimony stating the data did not show devastation and, in fact, showed the marine aquarium fishery was one of the better studied and managed fisheries in the State—I heard nothing.

Of course there is little doubt Kuali‘i was busy. In cases like this, it is no surprise a writer asking questions about something that had already happened does not rank high on a politician’s to-do list. Nonetheless, I persisted, and a few weeks later, I received a response, which began “Sorry for any confusion earlier…” Kuali‘i then proceeded to tell me the Council did, in fact, have DLNR and DAR data to look at prior to the vote. When I asked him what data, he cited a 1998 DLNR report, as well as a 2004 DAR, DLNR, State of Hawai‘i report. As it turns out, the anti-aquarium fishery advocates who brought the resolution to Kaua’i in the first place submitted both reports with the now familiar “their own report proves the aquarium trade is devastating the reefs” rhetoric. The problem is that DLNR and DAR both state that, in 2012, the marine aquarium fishery is one of the best-studied, most-regulated and sustainable fisheries in the State.

Marine Aquarium Fishery “Not on Council’s Radar”

“To be clear,” Kuali‘i told me, “I only moved forward with putting our Aquarium Trade Ban proposal together after it was brought to my attention by concerned constituents of mine. It wasn’t on my radar until they made me aware. As a Native Hawaiian who cares deeply about our ‘aina, I felt compelled to take action and at least put the proposal forward. Both sides had the same opportunity to come before our Council and make their case by providing testimony.”

While it’s true both sides had the same opportunity to provide testimony, no one with whom I spoke at DLNR or DAR, nor any persons publically involved with supporting a sustainable marine aquarium fishery in Hawai‘i, had any idea the Council was even considering an aquarium-related measure. The reason for this is that, unlike Big Island, which is home to the State’s largest marine aquarium fishery, Kaua‘i is almost entirely removed from the aquarium fisheries debate. Kaua‘i has virtually no aquarium fishery in its waters, and there is very little, if any, trade infrastructure on the ground in Kaua‘i County. As such, not a lot is known about marine aquarium fisheries by the councilmembers in the same way councilmembers in Miami-Dade County, Florida, know very little about snow removal.

Courtesy of Hawaii Division of Aquatic ResourcesWhile it is not surprising the Kaua‘i County Council is not well versed in marine aquarium fisheries, the Council should be quite familiar with other significant impacts to Kaua‘i’s reef systems. For example, consider the commercial and recreational reef fishery in Kaua‘i waters. The total Kaua‘i non-aquarium commercial and recreational reef fish catch is more than 435 times greater than the commercial aquarium catch. In 2009, 820 fishes were reported collected in Kaua‘i waters by aquarium fishers. The number dropped to 803 in 2010, and last year the number was around 200 fishes. During the same three-year time period, the recreational catch increased steaidily, with the combined commercial and recreational reef fish catch exceeding 275,000 fishes in 2011. As one incredulous fisheries manager asked me, “They’re worried about aquarium collecting?”

Better Safe Than Sorry?

To be fair to Kuali‘i, he did tell me the passage of the Kaua‘i Resolution might be less about current devastation of Kaua‘i’s reefs by the marine aquarium trade and more about potential future devastation. “People here on Kaua‘i are very protective of our reefs as a result of the devastation caused to our reefs by mudslides caused by illegal grubbing and grading in the recent past. Many feel it’s better to be safe than sorry.” He also told me “There are folks here on Kaua‘i who believe the aquarium fishers are moving on to Kaua‘i after having destroyed and depleted many of the rare fishes on Hawai`i and O‘ahu.” Of course because the Council heard testimony from the same anti-aquarium fishery activist who brought the debate over the fishery to Kaua‘i in the first place, it’s perhaps not surprising the councilmembers were fearful. The question remains, however, is there current data to support their trepidation, and why, if they are fearful of impacts to local reefs, did they choose to get behind a resolution seeking a statewide ban instead of dealing just with Kaua‘i’s waters?

From my correspondence with Councilmember Kuali‘i, it is clear he does not know a lot about fisheries or fisheries management. That is not to slight him or his ability to serve his constituents. After all, why should he be an aquarium fishery expert? What is of concern to many is that he and his fellow councilmembers felt quite comfortable voting on something they not only didn’t really understand but about which they also felt no real need to educate themselves. Instead of doing due diligence and at least seeking an official opinion from the agency charged with managing the resource in question, the Council based their votes largely on outdated and, in some cases, inaccurate data and statements provided by the same people who have testified against the marine aquarium trade across the State.

Fisheries Management Needs a Big Picture Approach

The marine aquarium fishery, like every other fishery in the state, is one that can be managed well, managed poorly or not managed at all. The fact of the matter is that the fisheries having a far greater impact on Kaua‘i’s reefs than the marine aquarium fishery are both less studied and less regulated. As is the case across the state of Hawai‘i, a recreational fisher on Kaua‘i doesn’t need a license to take a fish, and, collectively, recreational fishers are taking far more reef fishes than commercial food and aquarium fishers combined.

Yet there was no resolution about the recreational fishery before the Kaua‘i County Council this past autumn.

There is little doubt Hawai‘i’s reefs need greater protection, but they need protection from those stressors responsible for the greatest impact. Hopefully, as Kuali‘i believes will be the case, the data will be considered at the State Legislature when the respective committees take up these six Kaua‘i measures. At that time, individuals who believe this debate should be led by the data will have an opportunity to ask state legislators to do as they have done in the past—look at the data, educate themselves on the issues and let fisheries managers, not politicians, manage the state’s fisheries.