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

administrator . News 2430

  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?

The state of Hawai’i is home to the most important marine aquarium fishery in the United States, and the Kona Coast is where most of the State’s marine aquarium animals originate (although it was on O’ahu that the trade really began). As with most resources, there are many stakeholders here in West Hawai’i, and they run the gamut from commercial and recreational fishers to divers, cultural practitioners and those who simply live here and, as such, feel they should have a say in how the resource is used (it is their tax revenue, after all). These stakeholders, with their myriad relationships to the resource, have been vying for increasingly more influential seats at the table when it comes to determining the best way to manage the reefs along the Kona Coast. 
The current status is that all the major stakeholders are using the resource with various rules and regulations in place to try to mitigate controversy and maintain sustainability. For marine aquarium fishers, about 35 percent of this coastline is off limits to all aquarium collection. In addition, new bag limits and a 40-species white list are coming online very shortly. A limited entry scheme waits in the wings. The state aquatic biologists believe, with these management measures in place and given how well studied the fishery is, the West Hawai’i marine aquarium fishery can be fished sustainably. Dr. William Walsh, an aquatic biologist with Hawai’i Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) goes so far as to say, “If we can’t successfully manage the aquarium fishery, what hope is there for management of our other fisheries here in Hawai’i?”
Clearly not everyone agrees. In the most simplistic terms (and let me be clear, there really is nothing simple about what’s going on here), there remain those who, despite data presented by the State, are against the marine aquarium trade and who want the aquarium fishery here and elsewhere shut down. The best-known names on the anti-trade side of the debate are individuals like Robert Wintner (aka Snorkel Bob) and Rene Umberger, but there are also others including Brenda Ford, the Hawai’i County Council Member responsible for bringing the two most recent pieces of anti-trade legislation to a Council vote. Also on the anti-trade side of the debate are, generally speaking, the tour dive operators. Many cultural practitioners, although by no means all, are also skeptical of the trade. Finally, in terms of organizational opposition, there are, amongst others, Sea Shepherd, For the Fish, and the Humane Society of the United States.
On the pro-trade side are, not surprisingly, the commercial aquarium fishers who make a living collecting fishes and non-coral invertebrates for the trade—people like the president of the Big Island Association of Aquarium Fishermen (BIAFF), Bob Hajek, and others I have come to know while researching the trade in Hawai’i including Tony Nahacky, Jim Lovell, David Dart, Eric and Kim Koch, and others. In terms of organizational support for the aquarium trade, there is the aforementioned BIAFF, which has attempted, as I wrote in “Postcards from Hawaii” (Jan/Feb issue of CORAL Magazine), to give the pro-trade side a singular voice. Also on the pro-trade side is, and I realize this is a controversial statement, the State. The State of Hawai’i, while not pro- or anti-aquarium trade per se, has consistently legislated in favor of a sustainable and robust marine aquarium fishery statewide. The marine aquarium fishery is, after all, the second most profitable inshore fishery behind the Main Hawaiian Island (MHI) deep-seven bottomfish fishery. 
Are the State’s biologists correct? Can the marine aquarium fishery be well managed and sustainable? Or should it not even be considered a fishery in the first place, as Wintner has contended when I have interviewed him in the past? Does it even matter if it is sustainable or not in a traditional fisheries management sense when, as some have claimed, the taking of fishes from the reef for aquaria is nothing short of cruelty to animals and wildlife trafficking for the pet trade? These are all complex questions…
…especially when one eats mahi-mahi or any of the many other species of fishes commonly harvested for food in Hawaiian waters. For me, I have seen nothing to suggest the marine aquarium fishery in Hawai’i cannot be managed as a sustainable commercial fishery in the same way food fisheries can. I have not seen data to support the devastation purported in the two most recent resolutions seeking a ban on aquarium collection, although I have repeatedly requested that data from those on the anti-trade side of the debate. Yet here I am again on the lava-strewn shoreline of Big Island’s Kona Coast. Here I am once again asking many of the same questions to many of the same people. 
To be honest, it can get discouraging, and I’ve only been following the story professionally for a few years. The endless cycle can wear one down, much like the sea erodes the coastline. Ebb and flow. I spoke to a marine aquarium fisher today who has been at it for more than three decades, and he told me the same “the sky is falling” prognostications have been resurfacing for longer than he cares to recall…and yet he still goes out fishing most days. Like I said, it can get discouraging, but I think there may be a difference this time, and it is this: This time, more people are watching than ever before. More aquarists from across the country and around the world are curious about the marine aquarium fishery in Hawai’i. More lobbyists and policy makers in Washington are watching the local politics. I received several emails from Europe today on the question of the sustainability of the marine aquarium fishery in Hawai’i. 
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? Perhaps that is the most important question of all and the reason we all should be watching Hawai’i closely.