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Robert Wintner

Robert Wintner

Posted: August 12, 2010 11:23 AM

A bill to regulate reef fish extraction for the aquarium trade has passed its first reading before Maui County Council with unanimous approval, 9-0.

If the bill passes a second and final reading on Tuesday, August 24, it will require stringent permits and standards, including mortality reports, humane treatment, tax clearance and fees on all marine wildlife trafficking for the pet trade -- a first in Hawaii aquarium extraction.

Although county jurisdiction ends at the high-water mark, this aquarium trade regulation is a milestone in Hawaii, where the State has declined to regulate for decades.

With no limits on the catch, no limits on the number of catchers and no constraints on rare, endemic or vanishing species, aquarium extraction has left many Hawaii reefs empty. State regulation of aquarium extraction has been stonewalled from the Lingle administration (R), ending soon, in which the governor's Chief Policy Advisor was a wholesale distributor for the aquarium trade. Outside the law in Hawaii as well is unbridled extraction of invertebrates and eels, both of which require no permitting, licensing, monitoring or accountability. Hermit crabs are a lynchpin species vital to reef survival. Extraction by the hundreds of thousands annually has compromised many reefs, including Kane'ohe Bay on Oahu, where aquarium hunters took 300,000 hermit crabs for wholesale export at 11¢ each. The state had no response.

The growing popularity of home tanks in China emphasizes opulence, including leaded crystal and wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling tanks for displaying big (brood) wildlife. Capturing an adult moray eel takes a length of 3-4" diameter PVC plastic pipe, closed and baited at one end. The eel goes in and is captured for export with no permitting or accountability.

The Maui County permit law will close these gaps on wildlife trafficking as it occurs on land within county jurisdiction. The new law is also seen as a defense against the Superferry that would facilitate Oahu and Big Island aquarium hunters in their unlimited extraction of Maui County reefs. Though failed and under investigation, the Superferry is touted for revival by all three gubernatorial candidates.

A second Maui County aquarium bill still in committee would require humane treatment on starvation, finning and fizzing. Aquarium fish dealers starve wildlife two to ten days before shipment in plastic bags, claiming that it boosts survival rates. Finning is cutting the sharp points off dorsal fins to prevent bag puncture. Fizzing is puncturing the fish's air bladder with a hypodermic needle to compensate barotrauma on rapid ascent. The Humane Society of the United States calls fizzing "appalling."

The $50 state aquarium collecting permit is available on-line to anyone with no limit on permits. A state-permitted collector can legally take every fish from every reef on 98% of Hawaii coastline, including endemic, rare and vanishing species. In the last ten years the number of collectors and the value of the aquarium catch have increased, while the catch has decreased -- a classic profile for a collapsing "fishery." The Hawaii Department of Land & Natural Resources is also mired in controversy over managing wildlife pet traffic as "a fishery," while requiring that these animals be used as pets rather than food.

Aquarium collectors and dealers now claim that ending the trade in aquarium reef fish will cause economic collapse, including failure of dive shops, boat dealers, mechanics, fishing supply stores, gas stations, hotels with aquariums, cargo shippers and government agencies. Reported catch revenue is about $2 million annual, though non-reported and poached aquarium catch is estimated by a major Hawaii exporter at $20 million annual statewide.

Opponents of aquarium extraction counter with an $800 million reef-tourism trade now suffering perceptions of waning reef health caused by several factors, including aquarium trade extraction.

Aquarium trade talking points attempt to divert the issue from its essence; the aquarium trade removes millions of fish from Hawaii reefs. Most of those fish are herbivores who eat algae dawn to dusk, unless they're absent. Maui reefs are now vulnerable to algae suffocation. The aquarium trade argues that regulation in Hawaii will strain reefs in other places with less capacity for management, as if regulation cannot spread to those other places.

Noted reef researcher Dr. Brian Tissot recently summarized two possible solutions. The first is a ban, and the second is management. The last twenty years have been managed by many scientists with special funding to quantify a trade that returns less to Hawaii than the cost of managing that trade. Dr. Tissot said a ban would be "values-based" for the most part, while management is based on data--which takes years and has gained nothing but peripheral employment of the managers at government expense.

Many people feel queasy these days, watching as gushing oil kills a living ocean. People in Hawaii have had that queasy feeling for years, watching unlimited reef plunder and an assembly line of little Styrofoam coolers loaded for transport, away from home reefs, leaving those reefs void of fish.

More people in Hawaii and around the world are learning of this travesty every day, yet optimism prevails that Maui reefs may rebound with the Maui County Council's action. On August 24, Maui County may become a landmark in reef recovery. Stay tuned.