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Robert Wintner

Robert Wintner

Posted: January 24, 2011 10:35 AM

Maui County Council again challenged the largest wildlife exporter in Hawaii Friday, with a new law requiring humane treatment of reef fish captured for the aquarium trade. Finning, fizzing and starvation of colorful fish prior to shipment are now illegal, as the campaign to ban aquarium collecting from its most lucrative source, Hawaii, gains momentum.

The new humane treatment law responds to unlimited trafficking in wildlife for the pet trade that has gone unchecked for many years in Hawaii. The reported catch revenue of about $2 million is believed to be far less than actual revenue on unreported/poached catch. Actual aquarium revenue may be $20 million, but that figure pales beside the $800 million annual in reef-based tourism. Hawaii reefs and reef fish populations are in decline. The aquarium trade denies culpability and demands more, with no limit on the catch, no limit on the number of catchers and no constraints on endemic or vanishing species.

Yet aquarium fish and tourism revenues in Hawaii pale when compared to sales of aquarium hardware. Those sales depend on Hawaii reef fish and run to billions of dollars annual in tanks, stands, lights, filters, pumps, hi-tech heaters and ionization modules, chemicals and little plastic treasure chests with lids that actually open so the plastic skeleton can rise and blow a few bubbles.

Notable in the lead-up to Maui County Council's second reading and approval was the lobbying effort to derail the humane treatment bill following the November election, where 5 out of 9 Council seats got new members. The Maui Ocean Center, Maui's only public aquarium, became the client of record for a Honolulu legal firm that lobbied new Council members to vote against the humane treatment bill.

The Maui Ocean Center challenged the bill through the committee process, with its employees and legal counsel claiming that finning and fizzing are dynamic health remedies for captured fish. "Finning" is cutting sharp fin spines while grasping the fish by hand, so the small, plastic shipping bag won't be punctured. Double bagging is more expensive and less convenient. Aquarium apologists assert that finning is like cutting fingernails but have yet to show a fish with fingernails.

Fizzing resolves barotraumas -- bulging eyes and guts -- by piercing the air bladder with a hypodermic needle after rushing the fish to the surface. Decompression stops take more time (money).

The aquarium trade starves its fish prior to shipping so the minimal water won't be fouled. Bigger bags with more water would mean higher shipping costs. The Humane Society of the United States calls finning, fizzing and starvation and the State of Hawaii's tolerance for these practices an abomination.

Other public aquaria have called for continuing extraction from Hawaii reefs. The New England Aquarium, which has submitted testimony to Maui County Council, has in the past called for "a unified voice among stakeholders." Maui County Council members noted that Boston is 6,000 miles from Hawaii.

The aquarium trade also cries out for "sustainability," the hallmark phrase of a green-wash campaign. The most aggressive effort in "sustainable" aquarium extraction was recently shut down in Papua New Guinea, when costs went exponentially over-budget (60% to payroll), leaving aquarium traders demanding a new and more sustainable definition of "sustainable."

Hawaii is the most important source of reef fish to the aquarium trade. Hawaii gains nothing and gives up much. Aquarium collectors call themselves fishermen, but fishermen are speaking out on a vital link in the food chain, removed by extraction for an amusement industry.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this post stated erroneously that the New England Aquarium is claiming "stakeholder" rights to Maui County's reefs for ornamental fish extraction. This has been removed.