Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024|
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This undated file photo from Oregon State University shows a school of yellow tang off the coast of Hawaii Island. (AP Photo/Oregon State University, Bill Walsh,File)
Big Island environmental groups hope to end the commercial aquarium fishing industry in Hawaii once and for all next month.
The Board of Land and Natural Resources on Dec. 8 will consider a petition by several groups urging the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to draft new rules prohibiting the taking of marine life for commercial aquarium purposes.
The petition, which originally was scheduled to be heard at a BLNR meeting earlier this month until it was postponed, argues commercial aquarium fish collection irreconcilably conflicts with both Native Hawaiian values and the DLNR’s own mandate to protect the state’s natural resources.
Rene Umberger, executive director for environmental nonprofit For The Fishes, said a 2017 court injunction that prohibited the issuance or renewal of aquarium fishing permits in West Hawaii waters was lifted earlier this year. Although no new permits have been issued, she said that could change.
And in the six years since the injunction, Umberger said fish in West Hawaii rebounded.
“The (Division of Aquatic Resources) data we’ve seen showed that yellow tang, for example, had the largest single-year increase in population back in 2018,” Umberger said. “And we know that was because of the injunction, because the increase only happened in those areas where aquarium fishing had been allowed.”
In 2000, roughly 32% of the West Hawaii coastline was closed to commercial aquarium fishing, which Umberger said led to similar surges in fish populations in subsequent years.
But the damage from overfishing can’t be fully undone so quickly — or perhaps ever. Umberger said former aquarium collectors have said they were able to take more than 1,000 fish in a single day, and that the entire trade was taking more fish from West Hawaii waters than all the subsistence fishers combined.
The populations of paku‘iku‘i, or Achilles tang, declined by up to 95% in certain locations between 1999 and 2021, and Umberger said it is unclear if the species will ever recover.
Umberger added that, with the impacts of climate change expected to intensify over the next several years, the state’s coral reefs can ill afford to have fish populations — which help maintain the reefs’ health through an intricate web of mutual symbiosis — reduced.
“We didn’t have a good picture of the impacts of climate change back then,” Umberger said. “But at this point, we believe the future of our coral reefs are at stake.”
That said, the petition will face opposition, not least from the Division of Aquatic Resources, which has recommended that the BLNR reject the petition in December.
DAR’s recommendation states that spending any resources to prohibit aquarium harvesting would conflict with an “aquarium fishery management framework” DAR is developing.
That framework could allow the BLNR to consider limited commercial aquarium harvesting, according to the DAR recommendation.
Mike Nakachi, another petition signatory, said the BLNR likely will hear testimony from former commercial aquarium collectors, which he said amounts to “seven guys.”
“They want the state to create a limited permit system for seven guys,” Nakachi said. “They’ve been off the reefs for the last six years. … They’ll say they need to harvest fish to feed their families, but they haven’t been feeding their families that way for six years. Most of them have moved on.”
Umberger said the collectors who haven’t moved on have proposed a system where they are limited to taking 250,000 fish per year, which she said was the same amount of fish that was reportedly taken from West Hawaii waters per year two decades ago when there were 47 collectors.
Umberger suggested that such numbers highlight the likelihood of wide-scale underreporting of fish harvesting in the intervening years.
Nakachi said that there is still poaching going on — “fish are still being sold on the mainland,” he noted — and predicted that any return to limited aquarium harvesting will create a legal market and black market that will both need to be monitored by DAR, which may require more resources and manpower than the division can afford.
At any rate, regardless of the outcome of the BLNR meeting, environmentalists have several irons in the fire.
Nakachi and For the Fishes are both plaintiffs in a 2021 lawsuit against the BLNR and DLNR that will go before the Hawaii Supreme Court on Dec. 4.
That lawsuit objects to the approval of an environmental impact statement regarding the aquarium fishing industry, which the plaintiffs alleged was published in violation of the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act.
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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