On the heels of Ret Talbot’s January 2011 CORAL Magazine article on the Hawaiian Marine Aquarium Fish Trade comes a bill in the Hawaii State Legislature to amend Chapter 188 of the Hawaii State Statute. Specifically, revisions to marine life collection laws in the State of Hawaii, possibly banning collection completely. You can view SB580 here, apparently posted January 21st, 2011. For those of you who can make it, there is a public hearing on Hawaii’s Marine Fish Trade (among other things) scheduled for February 3rd, 2011. Thanks to Tal Sweet for calling SB580 to our attention and keep reading to find out why we believe this new legislation is cause for alarm.
SB580 is perhaps a poorly crafted bill that sends conflicting messages, in some places implying a ban, in other places implying continued harvest with regulations that we thought already existed. As best as we’ve been able to interpret, SB580 allows for permits to be issued for collection for aquarium use, but there’s a snag. A separate revision to an existing rule prohibits the sale of fishes collected with this permit. In other words, it relegates the collection of aquarium fishes to hobbyists and public aquariums who get permits (if they’re even obtainable and reasonably priced in the first place). In effect, the bill bans the commercial collection of wild reef fish for aquariums in the state of Hawaii.
In a further chaotic move, the proposed bill imposes fines and penalties for people caught selling these fish and doesn’t consider the ramifications – what does that mean for the Hawaiian Aquarium Store that’s selling a Chistmas Island-sourced Flame Angelfish? How can they prove it wasn’t collected in Hawaiian waters? Will this bill inadvertently outlaw the keeping and sale of any species found in Hawaii’s waters because there may be no way to prove the source?
Two other competing bills, SB459 and SB1098 offer variations on the theme of limiting or banning collection, referring to “White Lists” but actually setting up criteria for inclusion that could would exclude ever single species in Hawaii. The mainstream media certainly has a take on things, and once again, our old nemesis well-intentioned moral opposition leader “Snorkle Bob”, aka. Robert Wintner, is back at it promoting “facts” and “science” that is anything but. Accurately deciphering these amendments and changes are probably is difficult, but we think it’s important to call your attention to them so that you’re aware, and can draw you own conclusions.
Between the concept of outright banning (SB580), a proposed “white list” that may limit collection of fish in Hawaii to a mere 40 species (the Kona Whitelist mentioned in Ret Talbot’s article), and 2 white list bills that play off the name recognition of the Kona White List but actually are just disguised attempts to ban the trade (SB459 and SB1098), we hope marine hobbyists and industry members alike will see this as yet another “wake up” call. For anyone who doesn’t believe the Marine Aquarium Industry can be scapegoated, think again. No, it is not “doom and gloom” rabble rousing on our parts saying that collection of wild marine fish has an ominous, looming BAN waiting in the wings. No, that’s probably not how this is going to go down. It’s going to be a loss through attrition. It is going to have a cascading, snowballing effect.
Take for example the “White List” shared with us by Ret Talbot, a likely version of the Kona White List. We’ve refrained from sharing this list here because we’re not 100% sure it’s public, and we are not sure it is the actual white list that would be used, or just someone’s draft example (and as it turns out, this probably is not the white list that would be used with any currently pending white list legislation because the legislation creates an unofficial ban on the trade). We will share a few choice examples of what isn’t on this particular white list in a moment. For the sake of argument, lets consider that in truth, the White List bills meant to impose something like the Kona White List and are just poorly worded. If, or perhaps when, this best-of-the-worst-case-scenario white list restrictions are enacted, Hawaiian fish collectors will be giving up access to potentially hundreds of species they otherwise could collect.
Some species not on the Kona white list will be collected by the industry in other places. Others species cannot be and will be lost, off limits going forward. Unfortunately, marine fish breeders won’t be able to work with these species to preserve them in the coming generations because they won’t have access to them. Ironically, it is Hawaiian aquarists like Frank Baensch of Reef Culture Technologies who’ve developed the technology to breed and rear some of these species in captivity, and yet, the broodstock required for research and development for other new species, and for maintaining the genetic integrity of captive populations, could now be off limits.
If the Kona White list scenario goes into effect, aquarists and breeders will lose access to some terribly high profile Hawaiian endemic fish not on the white list such the Masked Angelfish (Genicanthus personatus), the Banded Angelfish (Apolemichthys arcuatus), the Hawaiian longfin Anthias (Pseudanthias hawaiiensis), the yellow-fin anthias (Odontanthias fuscipinnis), the Hawaiian Cleaner Wrasse (Labroides phthirophagus), the Blue Stripe Butterflyfish (Chaetodon fremblii), the more resilient Hawaiian specimens of Moorish Idol (Zanclus canescens), the orange-fin butterflyfish (Prognathodes basabei) the Fan Tailed Filefish (Pervagor spilosoma), the Sunrise Hogfish (Bodianus sanguineus), the Hawaiian form of the Flame Angelfish (Centropyge loricula) and many other species.
As long-time aquarists (24 years myself), we cringe at the rhetoric being utilized by “morality police” like Bob Wintner, but also that the same inaccuracies espoused by him are being reflected in the wording of proposed bills. Truly, we see many red flags when morality is legislated, especially through misinformation. Take these choice words from SB1098 – “Endemic species such as the bandit angelfish and the masked angelfish sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars each, with no regulation or limit.” Hobbyists in the know understand that there’s a reason these fish sell for so much, but it would seem legislators see collectors getting filthy rich, with unspoken implications that these fish are collected at the same rates as something like a Yellow Tang?
Or what about, “The Hawaiian cleaner wrasse will not eat fish food in captivity and eventually dies of starvation. Likewise, coral-eating butterfly fishes, prized by aquarists for their beauty, starve in a short period of time.” True, if you put these fish in the hands of the inexperienced. Somewhat false in these modern times in the hands of a more advanced fish keeper. Ironically, these posterchild fish aren’t the fish that are being collected from Hawaii in great numbers anyways because the hobby and industry itself steers people away from them.
In other words, the hobby has long been self-policing when it comes to species unsuitable for captivity (for an example of this self-policing, you might browse Wet Web Media’s list of Butterflyfish that are poorly suited for captivity – ironically at least one of the Hawaiian endemic butterflyfish species is on the white list, while a better-suited species, Chaetodon fremblii, is not?). Still such broad sweeping statements being used to ban species stifles innovation. I personally aware of at least one pair of Hawaiian Cleaner wrasses being kept in captivity for an extended period; when I saw the white list had to tell the keepers “time to work on breeding them” otherwise this species will be lost to our hobby. By the same token, here I sit, being the first person to successfully breed a coral-feeding species (the Harlequin Filefish, Oxymonacanthus longirostris), this same species having a general hobby reputation of being doomed to die and yet I have a 70% success rate at establishing in captivity. That “doomed” reputation keeps most people from trying them, but if such narrow thinking resulted in an outright ban on the species, I never would have been able to obtain it and make such ground breaking discoveries (thus forever altering the future of this species, arguably for the better as we could now ark it if we ever had to). Banning species for the sake of making a compromise is a poor avenue when it comes to research and progress. 20 years ago, we couldn’t keep most corals alive. Had we banned them, where would we be now?
Certainly we wouldn’t have people spawning and rearing Pocillipora spp. corals in their home aquariums. If corals had been banned 20 years ago when they were “difficult” or “impossible” to keep in captivity, we wouldn’t have captive-propagated fragments growing into full blown coral reefs like the Formosa Forest. For all the disparaging half truths thrown at the marine aquarium industry, those of us across the aisle share the same vested interest in coral reefs, and we’re contributing on a daily basis to advancing our scientific understandings of reef life. Ironically it may likely be the marine aquarium trade and hobby that has provided the knowledge and insights that may ensure corals and their inhabitants exist beyond the global issues of climate change, pollution, and ocean acidification.
Meanwhile, Florida has well established size limits and slot limits for some ornamental fish, with quotas and limits on numbers that can be collected. It *seems* to work for Florida. Why not Hawaii? Why must we ban the collection of Banded Angelfish (what, let’s guestimate 50 collected a year?) while no restrictions are placed on Yellow Tangs (we’ll guess an arbitrary 250,000 collected a year?)? If ReefBuilders has any say in the matter, if our op-ed voice is to be heard, we’d say this: Banning the wild fish trade in Hawaii is scapegoating a handful of people for problems caused by others – a classic example of the minority being targeted so the real issues (such as coastal development, pollution, climate change, ocean acification, and HEAVY tourist usage and abuse) can be ignored. White Listing a handful of popular aquarium species really only stops the collection of marine fish who weren’t collected in great numbers to being with. Neither is a smart solution. The smart solution as we currently see it, is for the DAR to license collectors, inspect their operations, require better and transparent reporting, and to enact management plans for high volume species like the Yellow Tang (that may include the use of quotas, size limits, collection seasons, the same proven management techniques used for food and game fish stocks).
We strongly encourage everyone to read Ret Talbot’s article, Postcards from Hawaii, in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of CORAL. We emplore aquarists to find a way to speak up for their hobby, and that can easily start by commenting here. Again, for all those people out there who think we’re raving lunatics or exaggerating the story to get attention, please think again. All it takes is to again look at the mainstream media to see that the aquarium trade is clearly being scapegoated for Hawaii’s reef problems. Without any real intelligent counterpoints, the days of wild collected marine life are indeed probably numbered, and new restrictions in Hawaii only get us one step closer to that day.
We strongly encourage level-headed Hawaiians to see beyond the rhetoric and often blatant lies about the marine aquarium hobby. People like Bob Wintner have a vested interest in attacking the marine aquarium trade. He sells more books, and he diverts attention from the damage his own industry may be causing. He plays on your emotions when he makes claims like clownfish (Nemo) don’t live in captivity. In stark contrast to Wintner’s “facts”, most clownfish available in the hobby are now captive-bred, some having been in captivity for multiple generations. They are quite happy in small aquariums (given that in nature, they never leave more than a couple square feet where there anemone resides), and captive lifespans can often be measured in decades, not months as Wintner would lead you to believe. Wintner and those who share similar sentiments often wind up retreating to a “moral” argument when their false facts are exposed. Meanwhile, the aquarium hobby thinks not only with it’s heart, but it’s mind too.
The truth is that the aquarium hobby cares about the long term sustainability of our hobby, and more importantly we care about coral reefs. We work tirelessly to improve our culture techniques and freely share what we learn. The net result is that we bring coral reefs to people who otherwise may never have even thought about them, and we bring experiences and knowledge that ultimately may ark coral reefs in light of the larger threats they are facing – threats like climate change that the marine aquarium hobby has no direct responsibility for, nor any direct capability to remedy. Still we can work to provide a failsafe via captive propagation, but only if you continue to work with the collectors and the industry to ensure that can happen. Indeed, the marine aquarium trade is not your enemy, and probably is not the culprit for the problems affecting Hawaii’s reefs.
Ultimately, it is our position that if change is required in Hawaii, make it smart change. Given the two options on the table, the Kona White List makes better sense, but is honestly simply the best of better of two poor choices. If something must be done, we’d encourage the Kona White List option (not to be confused with either White List bill) only as a temporary measure, with the ultimate aim being something in a year or two that aims to limit the impact of the trade through standard proven fisheries management practices instead of arbitrary lists of which species are, and are not, to be collected.