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Robert Wintner

Robert Wintner

Posted: July 13, 2010 01:52 PM

Sadly, the Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival was canceled this year, as if shrimp and oil might have mixed happily ever after with no sweet crude in the scampi. The devastating oil spew makes the doom seem inevitable -- in hindsight.

Ocean habitat cannot supply carte blanche extraction in the spirit of jobs for people. BP's authoritarian cover-up further demonstrates industry power over government in keeping things skewed.

Yet here comes the Maui County Council to stop a worldwide aquarium industry that generates billions in revenue, based on reef fish extraction with no regulation on many reefs around the world -- including Maui reefs. Two bills passed out of the Council's Public Service Committee in June.

On July 2, the entire Council heard the first of two readings on both bills. If the bills pass the second reading in mid-July, Maui County will be the first local government in the USA to crack down on rampant reef exploitation for the aquarium trade -- the first local government to just say NO to outside interests keen on revenue, and to protect what makes the place unique.

The stakes are huge to those outside interests; aquarium fish resellers in California now openly call themselves stakeholders in Hawaii reefs. Nobody knows how many fish are taken annually, though the State of Hawaii reports the annual catch at 1-2 million fish, with an average of $4 each left in Hawaii. The recent chief administrator of Hawaii's Division of Aquatic Resources estimates the actual catch (poached and non-reported) at 2 to 5 times that amount. But the stakes are even higher for a delicate ecosystem that needs balance, and taking tropical fish out of the reef -- for enjoyment in a home or office aquarium -- destroys this balance. The bottom line is that millions of saltwater aquarium fish are taken from Hawaii reefs with no regulation.

The Lingle Administration (R) Chief Policy Advisor Linda Smith, a former wholesale distributor to the aquarium trade, has stonewalled campaigns in the State Legislature to regulate the trade. Aquarium collectors in Hawaii still have no limit on their catch, no limit on the number of catchers and no constraint on endemic, rare or disappearing species. Hawaii people loathe this extraction; any reef outside a Marine Protected Area (MPAs comprise 2% of all Hawaii shoreline) can be emptied of fish legally. Furthermore, contention between Maui County and the Lingle Administration arose recently due to the governor's attempt to commandeer Maui's Transient Accommodation Tax (TAT) -- that pesky add-on appearing at the bottom of your hotel invoice--to State coffers for more effective spending in key precincts.

Hawaii reefs generate $2-20 million annually for the aquarium trade, while reef-based tourism generates $800 million. Though the vast majority of extraction occurs on the Big Island of Hawaii, aquarium hunters from Oahu and Kona came to Maui in recent months with nets and buckets to plunder those reefs -- legally.

While this seems cut and dried on right vs. wrong, connecting the dots required policy makers to keep County law outside of designated statutory areas. In Hawaii, the high tide line demarcates jurisdiction; State is below, County is above, so the bills could not address aquarium fish collection occurring in the water. So one bill addresses animal cruelty, since Hawaii Revised Statute already prohibits cruelty to animals, and the aquarium trade's "best practices" manual aims at optimal revenue on "livestock."

The Humane Society of the United States and Humane Society International testified before Maui County Council on Hawaii's approval of fizzing -- puncturing the fish's air bladder with a hypodermic syringe at depth so the fish can be taken to the surface without exploding. "HSUS/HSI are appalled by cruel practices employed by fish collectors in Hawaii .... We are equally appalled that the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) defends this practice as humane," said Dr. Teresa Telecky, Director, Wildlife Department, Humane Society International. Inhumane treatment also includes starvation, so the fish won't spoil its bag of water in shipment, and many fish starve to death. Many more die from cumulative stress, including "finning," cutting the dorsal spine tips that could puncture the plastic bag. The fish is grasped by hand for finning.

The second bill addresses permitting and accountability. One Maui dealer reported buying more aquarium fish from a few collectors than all the collectors reported catching. Oops.

In Maui County, nine aquarium permits are active, yet only one couple testified before the Committee -- he's a collector; she's a dealer, wholesaling aquarium fish worldwide, revealing herself in testimony. The State protects aquarium fish dealers with anonymity.

Many aquarium hobbyists are seeing the difference between loving these fish and loving to keep these fish in tanks. A home tank demands correct chemistry, salinity, pH, temperature, predatory balance and tank husbandry. With a single mistake the fish die, perhaps providing insight on what might be tweaked for the next round of fish. Tweaking the tank and replacing the fish is a major moneymaker for the aquarium industry which hauls in millions of dollars in revenue from tanks, stands, lights, filters, chemicals, pumps, hoses. Each fish retails for ten times the dollars left in Hawaii, and every fish must be replaced when it dies.

It's a vicious cycle for reef fish and reefs. It's "sustainable" for DNLR and the aquarium trade.

For them "sustainable" means taking all but a few brood fish so the species won't collapse. The Kona "fishery" is now declining from collapsing butterflyfish populations.

The late Ed Lindsay, a Hawaiian and charismatic leader, shared his awakening many times, and his wife Puanani told that story in testimony before Maui County Council. On a trip to California, Ed walked through a hotel lobby, road weary and ready to relax. But he stopped short at the aquarium where a Hawaiian cleaner wrasse stared sadly out. Ed said he felt helpless and angry, and determined to let the world know it is welcome in the land of Aloha, but it can no longer take what belongs here.

Maui County may soon be the first government in the nation to crack down on aquarium extraction. Stay tuned.