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.