Butterfly fishes are one of the main families of coral reef fishes being targeted by aquarium collectors. (West Hawaii Today File Art)
A recent Humane Society of the United States poll shows two-thirds of Hawaii residents say they support banning aquarium fish collecting.
The society released the poll, conducted by Honolulu’s Ward Research, Wednesday. It showed 66 percent of state residents, and 69 percent of Hawaii Island residents, support a full ban onaquarium fish collecting.
Rene Umberger, of environmental group For the Fishes, said the poll results showed several significant positions state residents have taken on the controversial issue of removing tropical fish from Hawaii’s reefs to sell, mostly to collectors outside the state.
“It reinforces everything we’ve been hearing,” Umberger said. “It says it in several ways.”
In addition to the majority of residents citing support for a ban, Umberger noted 72 percent of Big Island respondents said they supported only allowing captive bred fish to be kept in aquariums, and a majority, 88 percent, said they wanted the county to take action, either with a full ban (40 percent) or some other kind of regulation (48 percent), if the state did not.
Of people statewide who said they supported a full ban on aquarium fish collecting, 45 percent cited environmental concerns as the most important issue when they thought about the trade.
Nearly a quarter of people who oppose aquarium collecting said cultural concerns were the top reason for their opposition.
Ward Research contacted 669 state residents, 309 on Oahu, 307 on Hawaii Island and 53 from other neighbor islands in conducting the poll. Almost none of the respondents said they had a saltwater aquarium. Only 2 percent reported having one.
Bill Walsh, a marine biologist for the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources in Kona, said he was surprised to see even 34 percent of respondents saying they opposed a ban on aquarium fishing. He said he sees inconsistencies with the Humane Society’s opposition to removing fish from the reef for collecting purposes, but not opposing fishing for food or trophies.
“The fish removed is a fish lost,” he said. “Aquarium collecting is relatively small.”
He pointed to data that showed 18 times as many reef fish are removed from Oahu’s reef for purposes other than aquarium collecting. On the Big Island, six times as many reef fish are taken for purposes other than collecting. On Kauai, it’s more than 400 times as many, he said.
Those other fishermen are typically targeting larger, breeding fish, while aquarium collection targets smaller, immature fish, Walsh said. That makes a difference to the reef, too, and is another reason he questions the singular focus on aquarium collection.
The DLNR focuses on management of fisheries, as well as management of other resources, such as streams and rivers that bring sediment and pollutants into near shore waters and reefs, he added.
Humane Society of the United States Hawaii Director Inga Gibson was not available for comment Wednesday. She released a written statement Wednesday morning.
“These results support what we and other marine, environmental and Native Hawaiian groups have been saying to our state lawmakers for some time: The commercial collection of Hawaii’s cherished reef wildlife is not supported by the majority of Hawaii’s residents nor does it provide any public benefit,” she said. “Furthermore, the millions of reef animals collected annually suffer and die at rates that are unacceptable.”
The Humane Society of the United States said commercial collectors take an estimated 1.5 million to 3.75 million wild fish and invertebrates from Hawaii’s native reefs annually, most of which go to stocking household marine aquariums. Hawaii is the world’s third-largest supplier of reef wildlife to the U.S. aquarium trade and the largest in the country.