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Aquarium Catches Stir Alarm in Hawaii

Harvesting marine creatures is largely unregulated here, raising fears about damage to tourism and the environment.

October 16, 2005|Tara Godvin | Associated Press Writer

HONOLULU — After 2 1/2 hours out on the ocean, most of that 50 feet below the surface, Randy Fernley slides his small motorboat up to the dock, his multicolored catch sloshing about in a set of six deep plastic bins. He cups a few of his tiny charges in his hands, showing off their sleek, jewel-like beauty.

Fernley has been collecting fish from the coastal waters of Hawaii for more than 25 years. He keeps a list of about 400 specific collecting sites, and their global positioning system readings, to make sure he doesn't hit a particular site too often.

"I'm into protecting the reef because I know that's my life. And I need to have that reef around the rest of my life," said Fernley, owner of Coral Fish Hawaii in Aiea.

Fernley's system ensures that the waters he depends on for his livelihood are not overfished -- but it's not something the state requires.

The islands are valued the world over for their spectacular coastlines and aquamarine waters, but the industry of harvesting fish and other marine creatures for home aquariums is largely unregulated here. Now some experts are raising concerns about damage to the environment, the tourism industry and the aquarium fishery itself.

With the notable exception of a 5-year-old regulation project along the Big Island's Kona Coast, a $50 permit allows collectors across most of Hawaii to net as many of a species as they want, wherever and whenever they want. That sometimes means harvesting hundreds of thousands of a single species per year from a single bay.

That doesn't sit well with a number of marine biologists, who worry that removing plant-eating fish from reefs already threatened by urban runoff could lead to an overgrowth of algae.

And Fernley said he was concerned that short-term collectors might be to blame for damaging fragile coral colonies in Oahu island's Kaneohe Bay in their search for fish.

But among the most unhappy are dive-shop owners whose tourist clientele is the lifeblood of the state's economy.

"The dive-tour operators make money by getting people out there to see these beautiful fish. And there's been ... a perceptible change.... It just doesn't look as pretty anymore as it used to," said Brian N. Tissot, a professor of environmental science at Washington State University Vancouver, who has studied reef populations surrounding the Big Island for more than a decade.

Robert Wintner, owner of Snorkel Bob's, which operates trips throughout the main islands, says Hawaii's reefs are being strip-mined by aquarium collectors.

"There's no place else in America that has what we have. And you know the cookie jar is wide open and the bad kids are robbing it," he said.

Wintner said he and others are mobilizing locally to seek more control over the taking of fish off Hawaii's reefs.

"What are we doing selling off our reef fish for a million bucks?" Wintner asked.

According to state figures, 557,673 marine creatures were collected during the 2004 fiscal year with a reported value of nearly $1.1 million. But state officials believe those figures to be three to five times below the industry's true worth in Hawaii, which is the nation's biggest aquarium species exporter.

And though aquarium fishermen have been required since the 1970s to submit monthly catch reports, many don't.

Collectors working in the islands' biggest collections area, along the west coast of the Big Island, filed only 53% of the required reports between January 1998 and July 2003, according to a 2004 state Department of Land and Natural Resources report.

Enforcement of the reporting requirement, however, is likely to be tightened soon, said Bill Walsh, an aquatic biologist with the Department of Land and Natural Resources at Kona.

Walsh oversees the West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area, a project that includes the state's most aggressive rules for managing the aquarium industry.

On the last day of 1999, more than a third of the Big Island's west coast became off-limits to collectors after the Legislature passed a collection-control measure sought by a coalition of residents.

In December, the department told lawmakers that the number of the most collected fish species, the yellow tang, has since gone up 49% in both protected and unprotected areas along the coast.

Within the protected areas, populations of the brilliant lemon-colored fish about doubled, Walsh said.

At the same time, collectors are catching more yellow tang with less effort and the fishery is worth more than ever, he said.

"Even though everybody said, 'Aw, you know, if you ban these areas to us, you're going to ruin the fishery, we'll be out of business, there'll be all these unemployed people' ... it didn't happen," he said.

Local collector Paul Masterjohn of Ocean View objects to how the protected areas were selected, but he acknowledges that "it sure seems like they are working."

The number of juvenile fish is up and so is revenue, but only a 20-year study will really show what is happening, he said.

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