Kaua‘i County Council Urges the Legislature to Ban Aquarium Trade Statewide

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Two of the five counties in the state of Hawai‘i have now voted to urge the State to prohibit the sale of aquatic life for aquarium purposes. Echoing action taken by the Hawai‘i County Council in early October, Kaua‘i County Council recently voted unanimously to include in the 2012 Kaua‘i County Legislative Package a proposed draft resolution urging the Legislature to ban the collection of marine life for the aquarium trade statewide. The proposed draft resolution was brought to the Council by Councilmember KipuKai Kuali‘i (pictured here). Kuali‘i was approved last April by the Kaua‘i County Council to fill the seat vacated by former Councilman Derek Kawakami when he was chosen by Governor Neil Abercrombie to represent the 14th District in the State House.

The Significance of the Vote
While the vote is non-binding and has no immediate impact on the fishery, it is significant in that it makes the Kaua‘i County Council the second legislative body to advocate for a statewide ban. Stakeholders in the fishery, as well as the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), maintain the State’s marine aquarium fisheries can be fished sustainably. Having said that, there are those on both sides of the aquarium fishery debate who believe additional regulations will allow for better management. Crafting more stringent regulations based on available data and stakeholder input has been challenging but is, in the opinion of many, yielding positive results. Individuals involved in supporting better management express concern that resolutions and bills to ban the trade, which have little chance of passing at the state level, could derail ongoing collaborative work by shifting the focus away from multi-stakeholder collaboration.
“A vote such as this polarizes the issue and distracts us from dealing with the real issues,” one marine aquarium fisher from O‘ahu commented upon learning of the vote. O‘ahu fishers have recently proposed a rules package that would better regulate the fishery in the waters around O‘ahu. That rules package was largely embraced at a public meeting hosted by DLNR last week. Another much more comprehensive rules package intended to better regulate West Hawai‘i’s marine aquarium fishery is in the final stages of administrative review and should be enacted in early 2012. The Big Island rules package was the result of many hours of volunteer work by members of the West Hawai’i Fisheries Coucil (WHFC). The WHFC is a multi-stakeholder group created to better manage the fishery.
The Local Media
While the vote itself caused consternation amongst many who contend the marine aquarium fishery in Hawai‘i can be fished sustainably, an article about the vote, which ran in The Garden Island on Saturday, 19 November, has many fuming. Chief amongst many critics’ concerns is that the article presents as fact many commonly misquoted, misused and out-of-context statistics. 
In the article, entitled “Not Many Nemos”, staff writer Léo Azambuja cites Robert Wintner as his source when he writes, “[t]oday there are barely any yellow tangs [on Big Island’s Kohala Coast].” Wintner is a Maui resident and the owner of Snorkel Bob’s, and he has led efforts to ban the marine aquarium trade in Hawai’i. Azambuja also cites Rene Umberger, another prominent anti-trade activist from Maui, when he writes the DLNR “concedes” that aquarium collection has “caused the number of yellow tangs to drop by 73 percent in Big Island’s west coast.” 
Dr. William Walsh, Big Island-based state aquatic biologist with the DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), is as familiar with Big Island’s marine aquarium fishery as anyone. Azambuja did not contact Walsh to verify or comment on the statements made about the Big Island fishery in the article, and Walsh takes issue with many of the statistics presented uncritically as facts in The Garden Island article. 
“There is so much misinformation reported uncritically in this article that it’s beyond redemption,” says Walsh. “Today there are barely any yellow tangs in Kohala? Balderdash. There’s hundreds of thousands of yellow tangs on Kohala’s reefs.” When it comes to the oft-cited 73 percent statistic, Walsh notes that, based on the monitoring data, “the number of yellow tangs in the 30’-60’ depth range has actually increased by 15 percent over the past 12 years.” In short, the data overwhelmingly supports the fact that yellow tang populations are up on the Kona Coast of Big Island, yet misinformation about the Big Island fishery, and especially populations of yellow tang, helped compel the members of the Council to vote in favor of a ban.
Blatant Misuse of Data to Frame an Ethical Argument as One about Sustainability
Some closest to the debate express concern about the blatant misuse of data and misinformation to transform an ethical argument against aquarium keeping into an argument about sustainability and resource management. Even some of those traditionally against the aquarium fishery like Tina Owens of the Lost Fish Coalition say they would prefer to work together with all the stakeholders to come to a compromise rather than return to the deeply divisive days of two entrenched camps unwilling to concede any ground.
As Walsh puts it:
“Wintner continues to blatantly misuse data to support his ethical conflicts clothed in the mantle of sustainability. John F. Kennedy captures this approach perfectly: ‘The greatest enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived, and dishonest, but the myth persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.’”