The Hawaii-based ABC affiliate KITV anchor introduced a segment on last night’s public meeting to discuss proposed regulations of the Oahu marine aquarium fishery saying, “the issue just won’t go away.” For more than a year, I’ve been covering “the issue,” which has pitted fishers and pro-trade individuals against those who wish to severely restrict or even shut down the marine aquarium fishery statewide. In the face of mounting opposition, fishers and others involved with the fishery have made a concerted effort to work collaboratively with the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), the state agency responsible for managing the State’s fisheries. In efforts on Big Island and now on Oahu, fishers are proposing regulations that will ensure sustainability and which they hope will deflect the attacks of anti-trade activists. The proposed regulations discussed at last night’s meeting on Oahu are the most recent development in those efforts. Not surprisingly, the most extreme of the anti-trade contingent are not supportive of the fisher-generated proposal to better manage the fishery.
“The Fishery is Currently Being Fished Sustainably”
For its part, DLNR contends, based on their data, “the fishery is currently being fished sustainably.” Nonetheless, in a public statement they expressed appreciation to “experienced, commercial aquarium fishers who wanted to proactively propose reasonable and conservation-oriented regulations to ensure the long-term viability of this important fishery.”
As I reported two days ago, the proposed regulations would impact the taking of several species, including the yellow tang, the kole tang, the Potter’s angelfish, the naso tang, the moorish idol, the Achilles tang, and the banded angel. The ornate butterflyfih, the oval butterflyfish and the reticulated butterflyfish, all known coralivores (fishes that eat coral and generally do not survive in aquaria), would be off limits. Yellow tang collection would be subject to both a bag and slot limit, whereby no more than 100 fish per fisher per day between the sizes of one and one-half and five inches could be taken. Maximum size limits would also be put in place for kole tang (five inches) and banded angelfish (five and one-half inches). In addition to the regulations on specific species, new gear regulations would also be put into place. Specifically, nets would be limited to 60 feet long and six feet high, and no net would be allowed within 60 feet of another net. Some fishers cite the gear limits as the most important aspects of the proposed regulations when it comes to sustainability.
Rather than pushing back against the proposed regulations, most fishers, even those not involved with helping craft the proposal, actually suggested more stringent limitations. For example, the majority of fishers at last night’s meeting supported a much smaller net size—either 25 or 30 feet. “Using a smaller net is much more selective and is a much more responsible way to fish,” volunteered one fisher I interviewed after the meeting. “We may catch a few less fish that way, but it’s worth it in the long run.” Many of the fishers also supported a maximum size limit of 5 inches instead of the original 5.5 inches for banded angelfish.
“The people who fish for a living have a vested interest in seeing that the resource they depend on are managed well,” said William Aila Jr., DLNR chairperson. “These fishers are a tremendous source of knowledge and experience that we need to help us better manage these resources. We appreciate that they wish to work with us to develop potential regulations that will have a lasting, positive impact on the aquatic resources around Oahu.”
Regulations Don’t Go Far Enough for Some
Anti-trade activist like Robert Wintner (aka Snorkel Bob) and Inga Gibson, Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) Hawaii State Director, do not agree with DLNR. Both would like to see marine aquarium fisheries shut down statewide, and both have come out against the proposed regulations. They assert the trade is destroying the State’s reefs and is unethical in its treatment of the animals. After the meeting, Gibson, who was in attendance, expressed concerns the proposed Oahu regulations do not go far enough.
“It still allows the taking of up to 100 tang per day based on 30 collectors just here on Oahu,” said Gibson in a television interview after the meeting. “That could equate to over a million yellow tang continued to be taken every year.” The State reports there are 40 aquarium fishers on Oahu, but only 15 are full time. The yellow tang is a fish that has driven the debate over the marine aquarium trade in Hawaii and received a disproportionate amount of the press time given it is by far the most collected species statewide. Most yellow tang collection occurs on Big Island where yellow tang are as much as 81 percent of the catch. The Oahu fishery is much more based on species diversity.
Gibson apparently based her statement on a statistic cited in the meeting showing that, on average, the yellow tang catch per day on Oahu is 87 fish. Because the proposed bag limit is 100 yellow tangs, some opponents of the regulations such as Gibson conjectured the new regulations might actually put more pressure on the resource. Fishers at the meeting explained why this was not the case.
“Here on Oahu,” one fisher told me following last night’s meeting, “we don’t always fish for the same species every day, so the days where we catch more than 100 yellows are averaged with the days where we only catch two or three yellows. We pointed this out in the meeting and everybody seemed to understand.” The fisher added that on days when he purposefully targeted yellow tang, he usually harvested more than 100 fish. “There is simply no way the yellow tang bag limit will increase the take of yellow tang in the Oahu fishery.”
The fishers with whom I spoke also pointed out that, given weather, family commitments and other factors, no fisher fishes 365 days a year
It seems unlikely any regulations will satisfy the most extreme of the anti-trade activists. In large part, this is because they do not view the fishery as a fishery, and they do not trust DLNR is able or willing to manage the resource in a sustainable fashion. Time and again anti-trade individuals like Wintner have stated they refuse to use “the ‘f’ word” when referring to the marine aquarium fishery. DLNR, on the other hand, uses the traditional language of fisheries management, which clearly identifies the marine aquarium fishery as a fishery that can be managed sustainably.
A First Important Step
Overall, DLNR seemed pleased with the meeting. “My own thoughts about the meeting were that there was a good turnout with lots of good discussions and views,” says Alton Miyasaka, an aquatic biologist with DLNR. “The numerous comments need to be compiled and considered as we decide on our next step. My goal was to get public feedback on the proposal, and I think we got that feedback. This will be important as we consider how to revise the proposal and move forward.”
Both sides of the debate will now wait and see how DLNR drafts the rules package based on the initial proposal, last night’s meeting and a thorough review of the data. Following the draft version, there will be a number of public hearings and likely revisions of the draft. It is likely any new regulations would not be enacted for at least a year, but most people present at the public meeting seemed to walk away with the feeling that a first important step had been taken to ensuring the sustainability of Oahu’s marine aquarium fishery.
For the time being, at least, one thing is certain: the issues surrounding the marine aquarium fishery in Hawaii are not going away any time soon.