Reef or aquarium? Groups spar over aquatic life for sale

By Ben Gutierrez - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - A state senate committee is scheduled to hear a bill that would ban the sale of any aquatic life for aquarium purposes. Supporters and opponents of the measure both cite the environment and the economy for their positions.

Supporters of Senate Bill 580, including environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Pacific Whale Foundation, say taking reef fish has depleted the population. "We've seen a decline in the reef fishes, especially these beautiful little colorful fish, the butterfly fish, the angel fish and the damsel fish," said James Coon, the president of the Ocean Tourism Coalition, which promotes the ocean tourism industry, including snorkeling.

Environmentalists also contend that the practice is harmful to the fish themselves, with a high die-off rate as they are taken from the sea and shipped elsewhere.

Coon also pointed to the economic impact of having reef fish in their natural habitat. "Over that fish's lifetime, literally thousands of people could have enjoyed watching it live in its natural environment," he said. "And the economic benefit to our state would have been significant. Whereas once it's gone, it's gone.

"It's a real poor use of our resources to let one person to take it for gain or whatever reason, and take it away from everybody else," he added.

"This bill would kill my industry," said Randy Fernley, owner of Coral Fish Hawaii, which sells fresh water and salt water fish for aquariums. "It would kill my shop, and virtually affect hundreds of salt water hobbyists throughout the state.

Fernley said he has been in business for about 40 years, and does over $1 million in business annually. He said that while there are a handful of breeders that he uses, "most fish are wild caught. But we are monitored and have been monitored throughout the last 35 years by the Department of Land and Natural Resources. We've been sending in reports. Everyone's required to have a license," he said.

William Aila, interim DLNR director, said that the measure is not new. "This bill has been going in the legislature in one form or another for close to ten years, because you have folks who have a philosophical difference on whether or not you should be able to take resources from the ocean, put them into an aquarium, and send them halfway around the world for people to enjoy," Aila said.

Coon said he's hopeful the measure will finally pass this year, because "as our legislators look at the facts and see the value to this bill, that they also want to protect and preserve our environment."

For his part, Aila said the DLNR opposes the measure. "It is a moral issue," he said, "because from an environmental standpoint, there is no problem with aquarium fish. It's sustainable, based upon the number of users right now, and the level of catch."

The measure was introduced by Maui Senators Roz Baker, J. Kalani English and Shan Tsutsui, the new senate president. It will go before the senate's Water, Land and Housing Committee on Thursday.

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