Hawaii at center of battle over aquarium fish

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Hawaii at center of battle over aquarium fish
A scuba diver swims toward activist Rene Umberger moments before ripping her air supply regulator out of her mouth in this still frame made near Kona, Hawaii, from a video released by Umberger. The underwater scuffle is highlighting a long-running dispute pitting environmentalists who want to shut down the industry in Hawaii and collectors who gather aquarium fish and sell them for a living. (AP Photo/Rene Umberger, ho)
This undated image provided by Robert Wintner shows a yellow tang in Hawaii. The waters off the Hawaii’s largest island are home to a half-million brightly-colored tropic 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 these fish from reefs for people to look at and enjoy. (AP Photo/Robert Wintner)
Yellow Tang, saltwater tropical fish collected in the waters off the West Hawaii coast and popular with aquarium owners, swim in a tank at a retail tropical fish store in Culver City, Calif., Thursday, Feb. 12, 1998. The Hawaii legislature decided on Thursday, Feb. 12, 1998, on tighter management controls over the collection of tropical fish around the islands as diminished fish populations have been detrimental to the state's SCUBA and snorkeling businesses. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Randy Fernley, owner of Coral Fish Hawaii in Aiea, holds one of many colorful tropical fish he has just caught off the coast of the island of Oahu, on his boat at Keahi Lagoon, in Honolulu, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2005. The tropical fish Fernley has been netting and selling to mainland wholesalers and amateur enthusiasts for more than 25 years are as delicate as they appear, and his livelihood requires that he protect them. Hawaii is the United States' largest exporter of ornamental fish, but the industry of aquarium fish collecting is largely unregulated, less than 1 percent of Hawaii's coastline has rules of any kind governing the harvest of tropical fish. (AP Photo/Ronen Zilberman)
Randy Fernley, owner of Coral Fish Hawaii in Aiea, holds a small tropical fish Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2005, after it was caught off the coast of the island of Oahu, Hawaii. The tropical fish Fernley has been netting and selling to mainland wholesalers and amateur enthusiasts for more than 25 years are as delicate as they appear, and his livelihood requires that he protect them. Hawaii is the United States' largest exporter of ornamental fish, but the industry of aquarium fish collecting is largely unregulated, less than 1 percent of Hawaii's coastline has rules of any kind governing the harvest of tropical fish. (AP Photo/Ronen Zilberman)
Randy Fernley, owner of Coral Fish Hawaii in Aiea, holds one of many colorful tropical fish he has just caught off the coast of the island of Oahu, on his boat at Keahi Lagoon in Honolulu, Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2005. The tropical fish Fernley has been netting and selling to mainland wholesalers and amateur enthusiasts for more than 25 years are as delicate as they appear, and his livelihood requires that he protect them. Hawaii is the United States' largest exporter of ornamental fish, but the industry of aquarium fish collecting is largely unregulated, less than 1 percent of Hawaii's coastline has rules of any kind governing the harvest of tropical fish. (AP Photo/Ronen Zilberman)
Yellow tang aquarium fish swim in a tank at a store in Aiea, Hawaii on Wednesday June 25, 2014. Scientists say the aquarium fishery off the Big Island is among the best managed in the world, but it's 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. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1930: Postcard of Scorpaenopsis cocopsis Fish. ca. 1914, 246. Nohu Omakaha, (Scorpaenopsis Cocopsis). FISHES OF HAWAII. The Aquarium at Waikiki, Honolulu, claims the rarest and most beautiful fish in the world. They are odd in shape having all the hues of the rainbow with the tints laid on as if with the brush. No painter can imitate them nor language do them justice. Words are inadequate to accurately portray these exquisite colors and weird shapes. (Photo by LCDM Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1930: Postcard of Nukunuku Fish. ca. 1914, 247. Nukunuku, (Forcipiger Longirostris). FISHES OF HAWAII. The Aquarium at Waikiki, Honolulu, claims the rarest and most beautiful fish in the world. They are odd in shape having all the hues of the rainbow with the tints laid on as if with the brush. No painter can imitate them nor language do them justice. Words are inadequate to accurately portray these exquisite colors and weird shapes. (Photo by LCDM Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1930: Postcard of Balistapus Rectangularis Fish. ca. 1914, 250. Humuhumu Nukunuku Apua'a, (Balistapus Rectangularis). FISHES OF HAWAII. The Aquarium at Waikiki, Honolulu, claims the rarest and most beautiful fish in the world. They are odd in shape having all the hues of the rainbow with the tints laid on as if with the brush. No painter can imitate them nor language do them justice. Words are inadequate to accurately portray these exquisite colors and weird shapes. (Photo by LCDM Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1930: Postcard of Parexocoetus Brachypterus Fish. ca. 1914, 251. Malolo Puhiki'i (Parexocoetus Brachypterus). FISHES OF HAWAII. The Aquarium at Waikiki, Honolulu, claims the rarest and most beautiful fish in the world. They are odd in shape having all the hues of the rainbow with the tints laid on as if with the brush. No painter can imitate them nor language do them justice. Words are inadequate to accurately portray these exquisite colors and weird shapes. (Photo by LCDM Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1930: Postcard of Tretraodon hispidus Fish. ca. 1916, 264. Oopuhue Maki-Maki Keke, (Tretraodon Hispidus). FISHES OF HAWAII. The Aquarium at Waikiki, Honolulu, claims the rarest and most beautiful fish in the world. They are odd in shape having all the hues of the rainbow with the tints laid on as if with the brush. No painter can imitate them nor language do them justice. Words are inadequate to accurately portray these exquisite colors and weird shapes. (Photo by LCDM Universal History Archive/Getty Images)
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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.

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