Taking of fish a detriment to West Hawaii reefs


I write in response to recent Viewpoints by Robert Herkes and Tina Owens, which ran July 1 and June 26.

The early success of the Lost Fish Coalition and the West Hawaii Fisheries Council in preventing the total collapse of yellow tangs in West Hawaii is undeniable. Protecting 32 percent of the coastline from fish collectors was a noble effort that led to a grand experiment in West Hawaii. It looked good until species started to disappear and the sacrifice to the rest of the coastline and state became evident.

Factoring all that’s been learned about aquarium trade impacts since the late 1990s, it’s time to push forward together with a shared vision of restoration, no longer settling for crumbs. Playing “king of the hill” to the hill’s detriment, is a losing strategy. It sacrifices abundance and resilience for the often used, but ill-defined term “sustainable,” which in this context means settling for the balance between maximum extraction and collapse. Our reefs are too fragile and too valuable to walk such a line. Because our futures are linked, a bar much higher than collapse prevention is required.

While the other achievements described look good on paper, the high and limitless number of AQ permittees they apply to renders meaningless all species, bag and size limits. Add to that the chasm between the theory and reality of enforcement, and this is what you get:

• “Protected” species and sizes that surely ship out daily because enforcement officers refuse to check containers without probable cause.

• Some, not all, catch reports are confirmed via dealer’s receipts. The state doesn’t require licenses of dealers, so they have no way to identify them all. They admit there are a number of underground dealers, all of whom are known by the tropical fish collectors wanting to hide species and numbers.

• And, finally, despite solid photo and video evidence documenting substantial anchor damage, poaching and attempted murder in four separate incidents since February, it’s mid-July and still there are no charges. Meanwhile, the six implicated AQ scofflaws are free to continue emptying the reefs and threatening and attacking witnesses to their deeds.

Again, giving credit to LFC/WHFC for helping to boost, in varying degrees, yellow tangs in about 30 percent of West Hawaii’s reefs. By 2004, yellow tangs had nearly doubled in those areas. But, elsewhere, on the majority of West Hawaii reefs, a different story unfolded as yellow tangs lost ground, and sank to record lows, driven by record AQ take. Within five years, the free-for-all in the open areas also took its toll in the protected areas and the previously gained doubling shrank, bottoming out far below the 2004 high.

Today, those groups and the state want the public to accept seven, or fewer, yellow tangs per 100 square meters, when 25, or more, is the norm for an area that size.

They claim it’s a necessary compromise.

But accurate terms for the process would be extortion, coercion and profiteering when 30 fish collectors are allowed to reduce yellow tangs and other iconic species to fractions of their natural abundance, to the detriment of the environment, and with no benefit to the 184,000 Big Island residents who rely on those species for subsistence, cultural, recreational and aesthetic values.

Owens is, however, right in stating the situation has radically changed since the days when LFC members were threatened and boats were vandalized. Today those working to restore reefs and protect wildlife are called “outsiders,” “carpetbaggers” and “eco-terrorists,” and are denied the opportunity to speak to the WHFC. Meanwhile, a full-time mainland resident, a paid North America AQ trade representative, is promoted as “level headed” and is an invited WHFC speaker.

The memories of those who experienced West Hawaii reefs before the AQ onslaught began can’t be erased. No amount of compromise coerced through endless hours of threats and stalling justifies allowing the trade to wreak havoc on Hawaii’s coral reefs. Without some sort of corresponding public benefit, and proof of no harm to the environment, the culture and the wildlife, there is no justification for allowing it to continue.

Rene Umberger is director of For the Fishes. She residents in Kihei, Maui.

Viewpoint articles are the opinion of the writer and not necessarily the opinion of West Hawaii Today.