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August 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 39, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Spearfishing and Fish Collecting Limited in Hawaii -- Will It Help?

from the August, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

On June 28, Hawaii's Board of Land and Natural Resources on Friday voted to prohibit spearfishing by scuba divers in waters off West Hawaii. It also limited the collection of aquarium fish in the area to 40 species. The new regulations will take effect once they're signed by the governor.

The scuba spearfishing ban was the most contentious measure. Nearly 90 percent of the 565 people in West Hawaii who submitted public testimony on the topic last year supported the ban. After hearing more than six hours of testimony at its June session, much from fishermen opposing the ban, the board approved it with a 4-2 vote.

As for the limits on fish collecting, Rene Umberger, owner of Octopus Dive in Maui, director of the Reef Rescue Alliance, and a significant source to Undercurrent on the status of reef fish in Hawaii, opposes the new rules. She says that while they appear to help reefs, in reality, their protective effects on Hawaii's disappearing fish populations and stressed corals will be minimal. Here's her reasoning why:

"These pending regulations would still allow open season year-round on the 40 most sought-after fish for the household aquarium market. Those include yellow tangs, four-spot butterflyfish, orangespine unicornfish and Hawaiian damselfish (the latter currently being considered for placement on the list of U.S. Endangered Species) The list of 40 species, a.k.a. "White List", was drafted with the help of aquarium trade members, with the goal of maintaining 99 percent of its current revenues. The only high-volume, high-value species to be prohibited would be the endemic Hawaiian cleaner wrasse and bandit angelfish.

"It's expected that collection of the White List species would increase to fill the revenue gap. State records show that in the last 35 years, many of the White List species have declines ranging from 60 to 100 percent at sites up and down the Kona coast. Yellow tangs have declined by more than 70 percent. The proposed regulations are critically flawed in ways that will only facilitate further decline: There are no limits on the number of permits handed out, and no limits on the number of fish taken, so species already in steep decline will be pushed even closer to the edge of no return.

"Those who supported the fish-collection rules include ocean-focused NGOs, including the Coral Reef Alliance; groups that depend on a good relationship with the state in order to receive grant funding (the man who crafted the rules is often on panels deciding grant awards); mainland aquarium-fish retailers like Petco that want continued access to Hawaii's fish; and locals who want fish collecting banned at their favorite dive and snorkel site -- but who were duped by misleading statements that the whole package must be supported or the whole thing goes down. For the record, the totals for public testimony on the fish-collecting rules were 2,590 opposing it, and 875 supporting it."

"Even the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources reports that the aquarium industry poses major threats to Hawaii reefs, and it's responsible for substantial declines in heavily-targeted fish. This led citizens, dive industry members and environmental groups to take legal action last year to require the Department to protect Hawaii's reefs from unlimited collection of fish and other wildlife for the aquarium trade. In May, a circuit-court judge ruled against the lawsuit on a technicality, but an appeal was filed in July, and plaintiffs remain hopeful that they will prevail, and that aquarium collecting will be halted while proper environmental assessments are conducted."

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