The waters off Hawaii’s largest island are home to a half-million brightly colored tropical fish that are scooped up into nets each year and flown across the globe into aquariums from Berlin to Boston.
Scientists say the aquarium fishery off the Big Island is among the best managed in the world, but it has nevertheless become the focus of a fight over whether it’s ever appropriate to remove fish from reefs for people to look at and enjoy.
Activists have launched a campaign to shut down the buying and selling of fish for aquariums, saying the practice from Hawaii to the Philippines is destroying coral reefs.
“In this day and age, where the ocean faces a crisis … there’s absolutely no justification for a fishery for hobby,” said Mike Long of Seattle-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which is spearheading the campaign.
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A coalition of fishermen, state regulators and even local environmentalists say the group should focus its attention elsewhere, noting comprehensive aquarium fishery regulations and scientific research that shows fish stocks there are rebounding.
“We don’t have a problem here anymore,” said Tina Owens of the local environmental group Lost Fish Coalition.
Scientists estimate the aquarium trade removes about 30 million fish from reefs around the world. Hawaii accounts for less than 2 percent, while the vast majority comes from Indonesia and the Philippines.
Some fishermen in these countries capture fish by pumping cyanide into the water to make fish sluggish and easier to catch. The chemical may also harm nearby marine life and shorten the captured fish’s life span.
The Philippines has long prohibited cyanide fishing and in April banned certain types of fishing gear that destroy coral reefs and other marine habitat, said Asis Perez, director of the government’s Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
Hawaii collectors use nets to capture fish. Local collectors may sell one yellow tang – the most commonly caught species on the Big Island’s west coast – for about $3 or $4. With middlemen adding costs to store and ship them, the fish may retail for anywhere between $30 and $60.
Local activists have long pushed to shut down Hawaii’s aquarium trade.
Robert Wintner, the owner of the Hawaii dive shop chain Snorkel Bob’s and vice president of Sea Shepherd’s board, lobbied the state Legislature for years to ban aquarium fish collecting but the bills didn’t pass.
Long said Sea Shepherd came to Hawaii to help Wintner and other local activists. The group is focusing on filming and documenting to bring attention to what he called “a very fragile ecosystem out there that is being depleted for the sole benefit of a multibillion-dollar industry for the home and business hobbyist.”
West Hawaii’s aquarium fish collecting rules date to the late 1990s, when the state Legislature, responding to concerns about declining fish stocks, banned fish collecting along sections of the coastline.
Arielle Levine, a San Diego State University marine conservation expert who recently co-authored a paper on the success of the no-collection zones, said they’re doing “an impressive job” of protecting and increasing fish populations.
Other factors harming the area’s coral reefs haven’t been as well managed, she said.
Reefs are being smothered when sediment and nutrients like fertilizer wash into the ocean from coastal housing and hotel developments. Algae-eating fish that would prevent excessive plant growth from choking the reefs are heavily fished for food.