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July 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 7   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Where Have Hawaii’s Fish Gone?

check home aquariums back on the mainland

from the July, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

While Undercurrent readers report plenty of good snorkeling and diving experiences in Hawaii, it’s with increased frequency that they’re asking “Where have all the fish gone?” The dramatic decline in reef fish has several causes, but none weighs so heavily as the losses due to commercial collectors gathering reef fish for the home tanks of hobby aquarists. Although some marine aquarium fish and invertebrates are aquacultured by the industry and hobbyists, 90 percent of marine ornamentals are caught in the wild.

Recent studies show population declines from 38 percent to 75 percent in seven of the top 10 collected species, Hawaii’s most beautiful, unusual and often rarest fish. Given that the “marine ornamental” trade operators have no limit on the number of fish or species they may collect - - and there are no limits on the numbers of permits issued - - it’s no wonder reef fish populations are in serious decline.

Forty-five percent of the top 20 collected species are only found in Hawaii. But for these endemic species, there is no replacement pool. If they are overcollected to the point where they cannot rebound, these unique species could be lost to Hawaii - - and divers and snorkelers - - forever. And because four-fifths of all collected species are herbivores, the loss of those animals affects the algae/coral balance on Hawaii’s reefs.

On the Big Island, where the heaviest fish collecting occurs, a management plan established in 2000 set aside 30 percent of the shoreline as no-take zones. Four of the top 10 collected species are now more abundant within these zones, but the remaining six species (e.g., the multiband butterflyfish and the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse) continue to decline. Along the remaining 70 percent of the Kona coastline where collecting occurs, targeted species are dramatically less abundant. For instance, yellow tang populations average approximately 40 percent of what they were five years ago in the no-take areas, and have sometimes measured less than 25 percent. Clearly, collecting continues to have significant impact on Kona’s reefs. Seventy percent of Kona’s coastline and 98 percent of those on the other islands are being sacrificed to that industry.

Reef animals die soon after they are captured. In 2007, Hawaii’s collectors reported that of the 700,000-plus animals collected, 20,340 animals died before being sold (the true numbers are estimated to be several times higher). This equates to every fish on a Hawaiian reef the size of five football fields being scooped up and tossed in a dumpster. Mortalities continue throughout their journey from wholesalers to the retailers and finally the hobbyists. Many surviving fish are starved, bagged and drugged for shipping. They will die shortly after arriving on the mainland because they are unsuitable for home aquariums; they are either impossible to keep outside their native reef habitat or require expert care that few hobbyists can provide. In fact, 99 percent of all species die within a year in captivity.

Of Hawaii’s 20 most collected species, 10 of them are listed by aquarium experts as “unsuitable for captivity.” The most egregious examples of fish sacrificed for brief entertainment in a tank are the Moorish Idol and the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse; both are known to starve within weeks because their preferred foods are not available in captivity.

Recent research in Hawaii shows that yellow tangs are long-lived, surviving on reefs for decades; the oldest found so far is 41. Hundreds of thousands of them are collected on Big Island reefs every year, and though suppliers consider them easy to care for and good for beginners, only a few thousand of them will live beyond a year. The aquarium trade claims the losses are worth it: hobbyists cite their tanks’ “educational value” and industry professionals cite the need for livestock to support their lucrative “dry goods” sales of tanks, filters and lights. Common sense says reef animals are fueling a disposable hobby: When the fish die, they are thrown out and replaced, like cut flowers.

This is not just a problem exclusive to Hawaii, excessive catching of wild fish for aquariums happens all over the globe. The majority of the marine aquarium livestock originates from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and central Pacific Islands (e.g., Hawaii). Others are also imported from the Caribbean and Red Sea regions.

Most of the “live rock” in aquariums, meaning corals and invertebrates, are also collected from the wild and its use has increased drastically, due to the rise in popularity of reef tanks. Collecting or mining of many types of coral often means the use of a hammer and chisel to remove pieces from the reef, generating heaps of dead coral rubble and habitat damage. Fiji and Indonesia are currently the world’s largest suppliers of ‘live rock’ and coral and the U.S., again, is the major importer.

If you believe reef animals are best left on their home reefs, then take action:

* Ask your local pet stores to stop selling wild-caught marine fish and animals.

* Ask your local restaurants and businesses with marine aquariums to stop keeping and displaying the animals.

* Boycott those businesses that ignore your requests.

* Sign the petition sponsored by the Hawaii Reef Fish Recovery Project at

* Contact the organizations Coral Reef Alliance and Reef Check and ask them to take action to end fish collection off Hawaii shores. (CORAL has no position on fish collection, preferring to have all interested parties, including collectors, get together to work out a compromise.)

* Spread the word to your fellow divers.

P.S.: In early May, Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources board approved a ban on the taking and feeding of parrotfish, surgeonfish, chubs and sea urchins along a one-mile section of the Maui coast in North Ka’anapali, from Keka’a Point to Honokowai Beach Park. The goal is to protect these species because invasive seaweeds they usually eat are fast overtaking much of the coral along that shoreline. The ban, if approved by Governor Linda Lingle, would mark the first time Hawaii has adopted protections for specific species as a broader strategy for restoring the health of a reef. Both scientists and fishers support the plan. However, many species, including butterflyfish, angelfish, Moorish Idols, eels and hermit crabs, can still be taken in unlimited numbers from those reefs.

Author Rene Umberger has been a scuba instructor and guide on Maui since 1983. When not underwater she works with the tourism industry creating educational materials, developing environmental standards for marine tourism and organizing underwater cleanup events. She is currently the administrator for the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council.

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