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Hawaii at center of battle over aquarium fish

HONOLULU (AP) - The waters off the Hawaii's largest island are home to a half-million brightly-colored tropical fish that are scooped up into nets each year and flown across the globe into aquariums from Berlin to Boston.

Scientists say the aquarium fishery off the Big Island is among the best managed in the world, but it has nevertheless become the focus of a fight over whether it's ever appropriate to remove fish from reefs for people to look at and enjoy.

Activists have launched a campaign to shut down the buying and selling of fish for aquariums, saying the practice from Hawaii to the Philippines is destroying coral reefs.

"In this day and age, where the ocean faces a crisis ... there's absolutely no justification for a fishery for hobby," said Mike Long of Seattle-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which is spearheading the campaign.

Caught On Video: Scuba Diver Assaulted Underwater

A coalition of fishermen, state regulators and even local environmentalists say the group should focus its attention elsewhere, noting comprehensive aquarium fishery regulations and scientific research that shows fish stocks there are rebounding.

"We don't have a problem here anymore," said Tina Owens of the local environmental group Lost Fish Coalition.

Scientists estimate the aquarium trade removes about 30 million fish from reefs around the world. Hawaii accounts for less than 2 percent, while the vast majority comes from Indonesia and the Philippines.

Some fishermen in these countries capture fish by pumping cyanide into the water to make fish sluggish and easier to catch. The chemical may also harm nearby marine life, as well as shorten the captured fish's life span.

The Philippines has long prohibited cyanide fishing and in April banned certain types of fishing gear that destroy coral reefs and other marine habitat, said Asis Perez, director of the government's Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

Hawaii collectors use nets to capture fish. Local collectors may sell one yellow tang - the most commonly caught species on the Big Island's west coast - for about $3 or $4. With middlemen adding costs to store and ship them, the fish may retail for anywhere between $30 and $60.

Long said Sea Shepherd would take the campaign to Indonesia and the Philippines as well, but didn't offer details.

The group is known for using aggressive tactics - even violence - to achieve its aims, as when its members rammed Japanese whaling ships in Antarctica and hurled glass containers of acid at the vessels. A federal judge called them pirates.

Conflict over the aquarium fish industry shot into the limelight last month when Sea Shepherd activists wearing cameras approached two fish collectors working underwater in West Hawaii.

One collector swam to one of the activists and ripped her scuba air regulator out of her mouth. Both the fish collector and the activist filed complaints against each another. Prosecutors are reviewing evidence but haven't decided whether to file charges.

Local activists have long pushed to shut down Hawaii's aquarium trade.

Robert Wintner, the owner of the Hawaii dive shop chain Snorkel Bob's and vice president of Sea Shepherd's board, lobbied the state Legislature for years to ban aquarium fish collecting but the bills didn't pass.

Wintner and others sued the state in 2012, saying environmental studies should be conducted before collection permits are issued. A state judge rejected the lawsuit, but the plaintiffs are appealing.

Long said Sea Shepherd came to Hawaii to help Wintner and other local activists. He said the group doesn't intend to "harass, attack or engage an individual fisherman who is trying to put food on the table."

The group is focusing on filming and documenting to bring attention to what Long called "a very fragile ecosystem out there that is being depleted for the sole benefit of a multi-billion dollar industry for the home and business hobbyist."

Fish collectors say the filming isn't harmless, saying it could scare away skittish fish.

West Hawaii's aquarium fish collecting rules date to the late 1990s, when the state Legislature, responding to concerns about declining fish stocks, banned fish collecting along sections of the coastline.

Today, collecting is prohibited on 35 percent of the coast.

Scientific surveys show yellow tang populations have jumped 88 percent in these areas since the regulations went into effect, said Brian Tissot, a Humbolt State University conservation biologist who has studied the fishery for decades. Numbers of goldring surgeonfish, the second most-caught aquarium fish, climbed 57 percent.

The population growth has spilled over into areas where fish collecting is allowed.

A local fisheries advisory council - made up of environmentalists, divers, fish collectors, tourism industry officials and others - recently moved to strengthen the regulations. Their new rules limit species that collectors may capture to a list of 40.

Arielle Levine, a San Diego State University marine conservation expert who recently co-authored a paper on the success of the no-collection zones, said they're doing "an impressive job" of protecting and increasing fish populations.

Other factors harming the area's coral reefs haven't been as well managed, she said.

Reefs are being smothered when sediment and nutrients like fertilizer wash into the ocean from coastal housing and hotel developments. Algae-eating fish that would prevent excessive plant growth from choking the reefs are heavily fished for food.

Andy Rhyne, an assistant professor at Roger Williams University and New England Aquarium research scientist, said the fishery's management could still be improved but regulations have "really worked."

"This is not a debate or data or science. It's an emotional argument," he said.

Join the discussion

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bienhoa72alum June 27 2014 at 12:31 AM

Someone, Quick! start filming another one-sided propaganda documentary like "Blackfish"! That should take care of things!

Holy Mackeral, We lost 4500 american soldiers in the middle east in the past decade, and people are worried about how many exotic fish are taken from a sustainable population off Hawaii?

I think some people need to get their priorities strait.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
mfgarrison June 27 2014 at 12:57 AM

it's cretins like this that give environmentalist a bad name.

Flag Reply +6 rate up
soccer_sucks June 27 2014 at 8:39 AM

Some one needs to tie a brick to his feet and drop him overboard

Flag Reply +3 rate up
rockinghorse2k June 27 2014 at 10:22 AM

i have collected fish from around the world. i can tell you that hawaii has one of the best conservation desighns . These so called enviromentalist are wacko and they are only out for them selfs. their funding comes from the us gov through means that are dishonest.This women was in fact filiming this collector who by the way is licensed in hawaii to collect. she had no right to film him with out his permission.The tropical fish industry many years ago got wise to the collectors who use drugs and dynamite to collect, they no longer buy from these people and if any one who has tanks knows the fish in the for sale shops are sometimes tank breed and they are living much better than in the past. If you can just imagine large aquariums around the world with out specimens for you to look and and study.

Flag Reply +3 rate up
libsfault June 27 2014 at 4:59 AM

These environmentalist/tree hugging types are a pain in the ass.....They think more of a minnow or a tree frog than they do human's.........

Flag Reply +2 rate up
2 replies
eric libsfault June 27 2014 at 8:02 AM

They are necessary on this planet that is overpopulated with stupid, short sighted people like yourself.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
dennyludlow libsfault June 27 2014 at 9:23 AM

I have seen 1 of these netting operations south of Kona. It's disgusting. It's not well maintained & dead fish all around.

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simon June 27 2014 at 12:44 PM

Better get the fish now if you have a marine aquarium ,they wont be there much longer they are probably glowing from the Fukashima meltdown just look up how far the fallout has traveled in the Pacific..

Flag Reply +2 rate up
jgtch June 27 2014 at 11:31 AM

I think they should take all of the idiots from the sea shepard and put them in a glass tank for us all to look at. Call it the idiot tank.

Flag Reply +2 rate up
stengernc June 27 2014 at 11:15 AM

In the Bahamas, natives used to pump bleach (chlorine) under the coral heads to flush out lobster to gig, they either did not know or did not care that the bleach killed the coral reef and the environment for the future growth of food sources. Again, human over population is destroying the food chain upon which we all depend....maybe our species will go the way of the dinosaurs only much quicker since we are really stupid in this regard. Birth control is an absolute necessary now. Mindless reproduction will only create more chaos.

Flag Reply +1 rate up
MISSY June 27 2014 at 10:10 AM

Where Was This Woman When They are dumping tons of oil into the ocean ?

Flag Reply +1 rate up
IBruzEZ June 27 2014 at 7:40 AM

They don't seem to care about all the whales, dolphins and other fish and animals caught in huge fishing nets, but a few fancy fish caught in a well managed area bugs them... so someone else can see them and enjoy while they are still ALIVE. Idiots..

Flag Reply +1 rate up
1 reply
hellyon3too IBruzEZ June 27 2014 at 9:46 AM

Non sequitur. The fact that people care about one thing does not preclude them caring about something else. It's possible (highly probable) that these people care about both issues, but the article simply addresses one.

Flag Reply 0 rate up
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