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Maui County Council Says No! to the New York Times

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Maui County Council today heard testimony on a New York Times Home & Garden feature encouraging marine aquaria as "a way to add movement and fluidity to an otherwise arid space." A sidebar gave examples of reef wildlife and retail prices. The council then voted unanimously to pass into law regulation on aquarium extraction for the first time in Maui County.

Massive extraction of colorful and rare reef fish for the aquarium trade is more contentious than ever, as reefs decline and the state stonewalls regulation. Reef-based tourism generates 40 times more revenue than aquarium extraction, yet aquarium collectors have no limit on their catch, no limit on the number of catchers and no constraint on rare or endangered species. They're killing the goose, and outrage is the common reaction, but business in Hawaii is often political. With $800 million annual in reef-tourism revenue -- and a host culture too long ignored or disrespected, many eyes are rolling. Informed voters are rapidly growing in number, and the lame duck governor's chief policy adviser, a former wholesaler to the aquarium trade, will soon be gone.

The permits now required in Maui County will hold aquarium trade collectors accountable for mortality, humane treatment and tax clearance. Fees and fines reflect the considerable expense of tracking reef extraction and its effect on reef health. The State Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) voice in Kona (Big Island of Hawaii) puts the aquarium catch at merely 2% of the total fish catch in Maui County. But that claim is similar to most "data" spun from DAR in its conspicuous failure to mention that reported catch is off by a factor of two to five. Far more damning than painting by skewed numbers are the isolated horrors of aquarium extraction, like the day anthius rock on South Maui was denuded of its entire population. Testimony favoring a ban on aquarium extraction has run 100 to one on Maui, but council jurisdiction stops at the high water mark. Ocean waters are state controlled.

Today's landmark law, however, may stimulate movement in the legislature, where Senator Josh Green, (District 3, Kona Coast) has unveiled plans to introduce a bill in January that will ban aquarium extraction statewide. With a new governor, new leadership in the House, Senate and Department of Land & Natural Resources, reef recovery may be in the offing. For years the aquarium trade has cried foul at any and every regulation suggested, demanding that extraction remain "sustainable." Sustainability has focused on revenue.

Councilman Bill Kauakea Medeiros today said Maui County will propose a white-list bill at the October meeting of the Hawaii State Association of Counties (HSAC) for inclusion in the 2011 legislative package. Hawaii has four counties, and HSAC is a strong voice at the Capitol. The bill in question is the same bill killed in committee in 2009 by commercial fishing interests. Councilman Medeiros said, "We looked this bill over. It has nothing to do with fishing. It's really very good." Medeiros is a Hawaiian cultural practitioner who hung his head on hearing the New York Times describe Hawaii reef fish as urban décor for chic townhouse residents in "one of the last surefire ways to impress their peers."

One TriBeCa aquarium was habitat for a single shark. It died. Several new sharks replaced it. They died. The New York Times may not know that aquarium containment stunts growth for most species, but not sharks -- or maybe the reporter opted out of that information; dead fish are so passé. The New York Times reporter also failed to mention that sharks are aumakua, spirit guides, to many Hawaiian families.

Ed Lindsey, a Hawaiian and charismatic leader, died last year, after championing reef recovery for many years. Ed often told of his awakening on a trip to California, where he shuffled across a hotel lobby, ready to relax. But he stopped short at the lobby aquarium where a Hawaiian cleaner wrasse stared sadly out. Hinalea are found nowhere else in the world. They pick parasites from other fish. They starve to death in captivity in days, and a reef without cleaners is vulnerable to parasite infestation. Yet they ship out daily. Ed said he felt helpless and decided then that the world will always be welcome in the land of Aloha, but it can no longer take what belongs here.

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