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Why Aquarist Should Understand the Data Relating to the Hawaii Marine Aquarium Fishery

By Ret Talbot - Posted Nov 30, 2011 07:00 AM
With two of five counties in Hawaii voting to ban the marine aquarium trade in the State, there has never been a more important time to understand the data. The future of the marine aquarium trade may depend on it.
Why Aquarist Should Understand the Data Relating to the Hawaii Marine Aquarium Fishery

Dr. Walsh returning from a dive at a survey site from which he has personally collected data as far back as the 70s

I interviewed Dr. William Walsh, an aquatic biologist with the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), for the current issue of Coral Magazine (Nov/Dec 2011). It was a little over a year ago that I first met Dr. Bill, as those who deal with him on a daily basis frequently call him, and I’m going to let down a little of my journalistic detachment here and tell you I really like the guy. You don’t have to like Dr. Bill, though, to acknowledge his data is at the epicenter of the debate over the marine aquarium trade in Hawaii, and, as has become abundantly clear to me as of late, you don’t have to agree with his thesis about the fishery—that it can be managed sustainably—to use that data to support a statewide ban on the marine aquarium trade.

Shades of Criticism of Hawaii’s Marine Aquarium Trade

In several interviews I have conducted with people seeking a ban on Hawaii’s marine aquarium trade, I have heard a similar assertion: You don’t need any data beyond Dr. Bill’s to see the fishery needs to be shut down. In some cases this position is firmly rooted in the belief that the marine aquarium issue in Hawaii is “not a resource issue.” As Robert Wintner, Maui resident and owner of Snorkel Bob’s, has repeatedly said to me, “I refuse to use the ‘F’ word” (referring to “fishery”). To Wintner, the marine aquarium trade is unethical, immoral and little more than wildlife trafficking for the pet trade. For people with this view, there is no data Dr. Bill could provide which would placate their animosity toward the trade. To them, collecting reef fishes for aquaria is simply wrong. Full stop. And that position, I have come to understand, allows them to use Dr. Bill’s data, even if out of context, to serve their ultimate end.

As one might expect, not all critics of the marine aquarium fishery in Hawaii are coming from as extreme a position as Robert Wintner. There are many, in fact, who don’t subscribe to the moral argument but who nonetheless believe there are problems with the fishery—that it has grown too fast, has too little regulation and may not be sustainable if it is continued to be fished as it is being fished now. There is merit in having discussions about all of these concerns, and for these people, Dr. Bill’s data is essential. Many of these people believe a fishery—whether it’s a marine aquarium fishery or a food fishery—can be managed sustainably with data, adaptive management and enforcement. For them, Dr. Bill’s data will be the primary resource to which they turn when deciding how to approach Hawaii’s marine aquarium fishery.

Using the Same Data Two Ways

In the preamble to my interview with Dr. Bill in Coral Magazine, I reference the early October Hawaii County Council vote on Resolution 130-11 urging a statewide ban on the trade in Hawaii. That vote passed six-to-two, and Dr. Bill’s data was made available to council members before the vote. In fact, not only was Dr. Bill’s data used, but it was used by both sides in testimony to support their respective positions on the fishery.

Resolution 130-11, and the draft bill which accompanied it, makes a direct connection between aquarium collecting and the “devastation” of the reefs along the Kona Coast of Big Island. “The State conceded that yellow tang take is unsustainable and that populations are down by 73 percent,” said Rene Umberger of For the Fishes in testimony before the Council. Holding up a report authored by Dr. Walsh, Umberger told the Council “populations and entire species are disappearing” and that 60 to 80 percent of the populations of yellow tang and Achilles tang are taken every year by the trade. In short, Umberger used Dr. Bill’s data before the Council to advocate for closing the marine aquarium fishery.

In written testimony opposing the same Resolution, Dr. Bill tells a different story. “This is not devastation,” he says, and he goes on to broadly present some of the data supporting his assertion. Amongst the examples given by Dr. Bill are the facts the yellow tang population in the 30-foot to 60-foot prime reef habitat has increased by 337,000 over the past twelve years, while the Kole tang populations have increased by over 1,019,000 fish. Given these two species make up over 90 percent of the West Hawaii aquarium catch, it seems difficult to argue, as the opposition does, that the “fish are all gone” or that the reefs have been devastated.

Why Aquarists Must Decide

So which is it?

Does Dr. Bill’s data show the fishery is unsustainable and needs to be shut down, or does his data show the fishery can be managed sustainably? Answering that simple question has been the focus of most of the writing I have done about the Hawaii marine aquarium fishery as of late. Why? Because I believe having a rational conversation based on data is far better than polarizing the debate with hyperbole and mud slinging. For aquarists, coming to a conclusion about whether or not the marine aquarium fishery in Hawaii is being fished sustainably is nothing short of the central question concerning their hobby. If Hawaii’s marine aquarium fishery—certainly the most studied aquarium fishery in the world—is deemed impossible to fish sustainably, then how can aquarists support any marine aquarium fishery with confidence?

Of course the central question goes beyond the hobby, for, as Dr. Bill pointedly asks, “If we can’t successfully manage the aquarium fishery, what hope is there for management of our other fisheries here in Hawaii?”

…or the rest of the world for that matter?

So here’s the bit of advice I’m going to give at the close of this, my first ever Advanced Aquarist blog entry (thanks to the fine folks at Advanced Aquarist for the invitation!): Formulating an opinion based on data about Hawaii’s marine aquarium fishery is one of the most important actions any aquarist who cares about fisheries, fisheries management or the well being of our planet can undertake at present. Educate yourself, have an open mind and share your opinions with others. More to come...

Author: Ret Talbot
Location: USA

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer and photographer who frequently reports on fisheries issues. He is a senior editor at CORAL Magazine, where he has been researching a multi-year story on sustainability and the marine aquarium trade. He frequently blogs about fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability at his own blog:


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