Hawaii is best known for the colorful reefs teeming with tropical fish that invite locals and tourists into this stunning underwater wonderland.  Along with climate change, many fear that Hawaii’s pristine coral reefs might be in danger of depletion due to the Big Island’s fish collection industry. Over the past few years, the debate over the current regulations of Hawaii’s fish collection industry versus the complete abolition of the practice has heated up as both sides have become much more vocal and public in voicing their arguments.  After the debut of the popular animated film Finding Nemo and its sequel Finding Dory, the debate continues to rage over the sustainability and morality of the aquarium trade in Hawaii.  Earlier this year, many “ban bills” were introduced to the Hawaii state legislature that if passed would outlaw the collection of any fish in Hawaii’s waters for the aquarium trade. Staunch conservationists pushed for these bills to pass while aquarium hobbyists and local fisherman strongly opposed the passage of such a bill.  There were a variety of other bills proposed that would require stricter regulations on shipping of collected fish, catch limits, and management reef species.  As concrete decisions will eventually have to be made to either abolish or solidify the fish collection industry in Hawaii, both sides of the argument needs to be acknowledged and understood so the public can have a more accurate and realistic picture of what these potential laws mean for them.

Brief History:

A healthy coral reef in Hawaii

Hawaii’s fish collection industry and subsequent aquarium trade have only been around for the past 50 years, as personal aquariums in homes, businesses, and even hotel lobbies have become more popular.  For years, Hawaii has boasted that they have the most regulated and sustainable fish collection industry and have profited from the aquarium trade, with Yellow Tangs being the most popular targeted species.  In order to preserve the industry they began taking steps in 1999 to better manage and regulate the collection of ornamental fish.  In 1999, the Big Island developed Fish Replenishment Areas that were off limits to fisherman and collectors with about 35% of the coastline closed to collection.  Recently, a law was passed that decreased the number of species that were allowed to be collected from 100’s to just 40 fish species.  All of these measures were taken to allow the aquarium trade and collection industry to continue to thrive, while protecting the reef ecosystem. After the fish are selected based on size, species, and coloring they are packaged and shipped to the United States mainland, or elsewhere, to live out their lives in aquariums.  However, even with these regulations many people are pushing for a complete ban on ornamental fish collection, especially as aquaculture of ornamental fish becomes more prosperous. Below are the basics of the 4 main arguments for and against fish collection in Hawaii.

It is Proven to be Sustainable

This is by far the most popular argument of those who wish to see the Hawaii fish collection continue.  At the core of this argument lies the hard scientific facts that state even though more fish are being taken out of the ocean their population is still increasing.  Without a doubt, if Hawaii had not created refugees for reef fish where they could reproduce and thrive without being scooped up in a net, the ecosystem would be in a much more fragile state.  Additionally, the significant decrease in the number of species that are allowed to be collected ensure that endangered and endemic species continue to rebound and remain on the reef for decades to come.  It is a well known fact that most reef fish utilize spawning during reproduction and are fast to reach sexual maturity and reproduce, unlike sharks and other reef dwellers whose populations are biologically unable to rebound as quickly as ornamental fish.  This natural asset coupled with the Fish Replenishment Areas have allowed many fish populations to grow despite the increase in fish collection for the aquarium trade.  For example, the Yellow Tang population was at 1.3 million in 2000 and has grown to 3.6 million in 2013.  State marine biologist Bill Walsh claims that studies prove fish population along the Western Hawaii coast have increased which is “a really powerful statement that things are working” and Hawaii continues to have a bright future for its reefs and the species who call it home.

Ecologically Destructive and Unethical

Yellow Tang

Yellow Tang

Conservationists, environmental activists, and many locals oppose Hawaii’s fish collection industry because they believe it damages the reef ecosystem, there is too little regulation, and the conditions in which the fish are shipped are unethical.  Though there are not many comprehensive scientific studies to support their claim that fish populations are only growing on reefs within the FRAs, conservationists and local divers claim that many of the reefs have been emptied of these colorful fish due to the fish collection industry.  They hint that over harvesting is a major factor in why they are seeing less fish in areas where they were previously plentiful.  Additionally, they hope to see stricter regulations that will have set catch limits of each species per year in order to preserve species that are dwindling and better manage the Big Island ocean ecosystem.  Lastly, they call for reforms of laws that outline the types of conditions these fish are transported in after they are caught.  Current procedure is to put each fish in a pint of oxygenated water, squeeze their swim bladders, and not feed them for 24 hours in order to keep the water inhabitable.  Many claim that these conditions are unethical and unnecessary.  Bills have been proposed in the past that would require fish to be kept in a gallon of water and fed during the transporting process.  Economics and lobbying are the main reason these bills have not been passed as this new practice would  increase the shipping costs eight-fold impacting the collector’s ability to do business.  Regardless of prior regulations put in place, conservationists and activists want an end to the fish collection industry and aquarium trade in total.  This extreme viewpoint fails to include the benefit of the aquarium trade, such as introducing kids to species they might never have seen and inspiring them to care for the ocean.  With recent debate becoming more intense how far off is a complete ban on Hawaii fish collection?


Damaging to Hawaii Tourism

Similar to the previous argument, many locals worry about how fish collection will affect the biodiversity on the reefs and in return the ecotourism that Hawaii is famous.  Tourists come to the Big Island to relax, explore, and marvel at Hawaii’s natural wonders and for many this includes a trip to the reef to snorkel with the local wildlife.  As more fish are being taken off the reef, the once lively reefs are looking more empty in the areas that are not protected, which could mean a downturn in ocean based tourism.  Many locals who make their livelihood off of tourism believe that it should be a higher priority than fish collection because tourism garners $800 million each year compared to only $2 million generated by the fish collection and aquarium trade.

Fish are Food, Not Pets

Last argument is rooted in Hawaiian history and culture more than anything else, as supporters believe that fish should only be caught for food.  Many native Hawaiian support this viewpoint and a complete ban on ornamental fish collection in Hawaii.  Father and son, Willie and Kaimi Kaupiko, from the fishing village of Mililii claim that fishing for purposes other than food is wasteful and goes against all of Hawaii’s traditions.  Many Hawaiians shares a cultural belief that  humans and nature must coexist and learn to give back to one another; however, the lucrative fish collection industry challenges this belief and creates friction between collectors and natives.  As Willie puts it, “we need to protect the resources and the ocean” as they are central to the survival of man and keeping the Hawaii culture alive.  Kaimi adds that these fish, “belong on the reef…They are a part of us” and collectors have no right to take them from their home.aquarium-fish-collecting

All in all, fierce arguments and beliefs are present on both sides of the debate though the science supports collector’s and reef hobbyists arguments while the ethical question give more support to conservationists. More importantly, locals are increasingly divided over this issue, and a compromise must be reached soon in order to both preserve the ecosystem and the future sustainability of Hawaii’s fish collection industry.


picture 1 – www.humane society.org 

picture 2- John Dickson, Getty Images

picture 3-  www.bigislandnow.com