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Protect Hawaii’s herbivorous fish to protect coral reefs

Updated: 
June 12, 2017 - 12:05am

To help Hawaii’s coral reefs recover from bleaching, we must protect and maintain a healthy population of the herbivorous fish that are essential to reef ecosystems.

A recently released Coral Bleaching Recovery Plan prepared for the Department of Land and Natural Resources identified herbivore management as “critical to post-bleaching coral recovery in Hawaii.” These fish are valuable in the wild because they keep algae from overgrowing recovering corals. Parrotfishes and surgeonfishes, in particular, are widely acknowledged for their importance in reef resilience and recovery.

The report identified a prohibition on the take of herbivorous reef fish as one effective action to help in reef recovery. We urge Gov. David Ige to sign SB1240, legislation which would go a long way toward implementing this recommendation.

This measure is needed because Hawaii’s surgeonfish populations are under intense pressure from the aquarium trade, which captures and sells hundreds of thousands of them each year for personal aquariums outside of Hawaii. The herbivores most frequently captured are yellow tangs and kole, which represent at least 93 percent of all fish captured and sold by the trade. The recovery plan offers several worthwhile solutions to help Hawaii’s reefs recover from coral bleaching – but as evidence shows, prohibiting the capture of herbivores by the aquarium trade is the most cost effective and quickly attainable solution. SB1240, which includes changes made at the request of the aquarium industry, would begin to phase out the aquarium collection trade.

For the last 20 years, University of Hawaii and state biologists have monitored West Hawaii populations of the most heavily targeted aquarium fish species. In monitoring population changes in marine managed areas, they documented the doubling of yellow tang populations within four years of protections provided by area closures. They’ve also documented that in areas accessed by the aquarium trade, millions of yellow tangs, kole and other aquarium species are missing from West Hawaii’s reefs.

Those same biologists also reviewed catch reports, and in a 2015 report to the legislature released an astonishing fact: the aquarium trade in West Hawaii takes nearly two times more fish than other commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing, combined. Yet, rather than placing limits on the numbers of aquarium fish taken, the state has focused solely on limiting food fish take. For example, a 2014 rule allows the aquarium trade to use scuba to take a limitless number of fish from West Hawaii reefs, but completely prohibits the use of scuba to spear even one fish for food.

DLNR is responsible for protecting the interests of present and future generations of Hawaii residents who enjoy and use our precious marine resources – including those who fish to feed their families and the tourism industry that relies heavily on a thriving, healthy coral reef. The aquarium trade benefits a relative handful of Hawaii residents, and a much larger number of outside interests; it’s good for their pocketbooks, but it’s not what’s best for Hawaii.

The development and implementation of most aspects of the coral bleaching recovery plan could take a decade or more to achieve, and time is not on our side. We are extremely fortunate that after years of effort by local residents, communities and organizations, SB1240 presents a timely opportunity to address herbivore depletion by the aquarium trade. It is supported by groups like ours, Humane Society International, Environmental Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, Keiko Conservation, West Hawaii Humane Society and Puako Community Association, along with the Kaupiko Ohana from Milolii, Hawaii’s Last Fishing Village. Please join us in urging Gov. Ige to sign SB1240 and put Hawaii’s families, tourism and reefs first.

Keith Dane is Hawaii policy advisor for The Humane Society of the United States, Rene Umberger is executive director of For the Fishes and Marjorie Ziegler is executive director of Conservation Council for Hawaii.

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