Why We Need Science-Based Management of the Marine Aquarium Fishery in West 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? That is the question with which I ended my last entry, and that is exactly what I think is at stake.
As someone personally involved with fisheries in numerous ways, including as a recreational fisher, a consumer of seafood, a marine aquarist, and a journalist who covers these and other fisheries issues, I believe in the possibility of well-managed sustainable fisheries. In order to manage a fishery well, however, you need to either have a deep, and often times first hand, experience with the resource and the resource users, or you need data. In the case of the former in Hawai’i, the ancient Hawaiians lived by ahupua’a, a system of sustainable resource management usually encompassing a watershed extending from mountains to sea. Within the ahupua’a, the kapu (taboo) system was administered by priests and, among other things, set limits on where one could fish, for what one could fish when and for how one could fish. While these early fishery management decisions were not based on scientific data per se, they were closely linked to fishing pressure, the spawn, fish migratory patterns and the like. Under the ahupua’a system, the fishery was managed in a sustainable fashion.
Today resource use issues and rights are far more complex than they were in ancient times. Advances in transportation allow various resource users to move quickly from one area to the next, and advances in fishing technology mean even a single recreational angler can have a measurable impact on many reefs within a fairly wide range of where he or she lives. When it comes to commercial fishing, be it for food or aquarium collection, the impacts can quickly become exponential. Add to this that, especially in a place like Hawai’i, more and more people are using the resource (e.g., dive operators, beachgoers, recreational boaters, surfers, etc.), and the result is increased conflict between stakeholders who have different relationships with the resource. To complicate matters further, terrestrial development is increasingly impacting non-terrestrial resources.
What I have consistently observed while researching the marine aquarium fishery along the Kona Coast of Hawai’i is user conflict based on wildly varying perceptions of how the resource can be used, how it should be used and what the results of current usage are. Earlier in this post, I said that in order to manage a fishery well, you need to either have a deep, and often times first hand, experience with the resource and the resource users or you need data. While I understand how someone who dives daily on a particular reef, be it for recreation or commercial fishing, may feel he or she has a deep, firsthand experience with the resource which gives the diver the authority to speak comprehensively about the resource, the fact of the matter is that the sheer number of users and the myriad impacts—everything from anthropogenic stressors to natural cycles—make it near impossible for one individual’s experience to accurately quantify and qualify the health of a fishery.
And yet that is exactly the type of anecdotal evidence that continues to fuel the debate here on the Big Island and elsewhere in Hawai’i. If I had a dollar for every time a person against the trade said something like, “I know what’s going on because I’ve been diving this reef for twenty years, and now the fish are all gone,” I’d be a very rich man. Likewise, I’d take a buck for every time someone in support of the aquarium fishery told me they have been collecting in a given area for more than two decades and nothing has changed.
Decisions about the Big Island’s marine aquarium fishery, and any other heavily exploited fishery for that matter, need to be managed based on data, not opinion. In the case of the marine aquarium fishery in West Hawai’i, that data exists. In fact, this is one of the most studied commercial fisheries in the State, and the State’s aquatic biologists are working with all stakeholders to insure appropriate management is put in place so that, to return to where I began, the marine aquarium trade in Hawai’i can emerge a model of a robust and sustainable commercial fishery.