By ERIN MILLER
The number of tropical fish taken from West Hawaii’s waters in 2011 was as much as double the amount of fish taken from the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef, according to a recent study.
Maui dive instructor Rene Umberger said about 349,000 fish were taken from West Hawaii’s waters in 2011, although the figure has been as high as 450,000. In contrast, the fish take from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, which Umberger described as significantly more diverse and much, much larger, ranges from about 134,000 to 260,000 fish annually, according to figures by the Queensland, Australia, government. Umberger is an advocate for reefs as well as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Department of Land and Natural Resources. That suit asks the courts to require the department to conduct environmental reviews of tropical fish collecting before issuing any permits.
She said doesn’t need those studies to see the impact of tropical fish collection.
“Clearly, there are fewer fish,” Umberger said. “My eyes show me that. … Overall, the numbers are much worse off than they were in 2000.”
One of Umberger’s main concerns, shared by reef advocates around the state, has been the belief DLNR has not and will not conduct accurate, in-depth surveys of fish species in the state’s reefs.
But Dr. Bill Walsh, an aquatic biologist for DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources in West Hawaii, says he has studied those fish populations for decades. Walsh conducted his dissertation studies off South Kona coasts, diving in Keei and Honaunau, among other areas. He’s been diving those same near-shore waters ever since. At Keei, the fish population dropped in the 1980s and 1990s, but with protections now in place, the population is only about 2 percent lower than the higher numbers recorded in the 1970s.
The population at Honaunau is about 17 percent lower than it was in the 1970s, but seems to be growing, he added. The yellow tang population at Puako grew 52 percent since the 1980s, and the population at Paoa has more than doubled, with 186 percent growth. Walsh said the surveys in these areas use the same methodology each time to try to provide consistent results.
Yellow tang populations in marine protected areas have grown by 13 percent since 1999, and by 71 percent in fish reserve areas in that same time period, Walsh said. In open areas, the population has decreased by 19 percent. DLNR’s studies show the state’s yellow tangs, the most caught tropical fish, have grown by about 337,000 since 1999 — from 2,236,000 to 2,574,000 — based on studies of fish populations in the 30- to 60-foot depth areas.
Population density in yellow tang isn’t significantly different in open areas and protected areas, he added.
Other fish populations are growing as well, he said. Kole, a popular fish for collectors and eating, has increased its population by about 1 million since 1999, he said. On average, 30 percent fewer kole can be found in the areas open to fishing than in the closed areas.
Walsh said even when fish populations decline, the aquarium trade may not be to blame. The saddle wrasse population has dropped from about 1.2 million in 1999 to 584,000 in 2010, but only about 670 are caught each year by collectors, he said.
“Something is happening with the saddle wrasse population that is not related to fishing,” Walsh said. “What is it? We don’t know.”
Populations may cycle, and those cycles may play out over decades, he added.
“In many cases, we can’t say what the pattern is,” he added.
Walsh said he hasn’t seen evidence of tropical fish collectors pouring bleach on coral to draw out fish, an allegation sometimes heard in West Hawaii.
When West Hawaii’s reefs are compared with Maui’s, even West Hawaii’s areas open for fish collecting have more abundant populations, Walsh said. That’s not just related to fish collecting, he said.
“They’ve trashed their environment,” Walsh said, adding that runoff and water quality changes affect Maui’s fish population as much as fishing and collecting.
DLNR, with a white list of which 40 species can be taken and implementing the fish reserve areas, is providing better management of the reefs than in decades past, Walsh said.
Not everyone would agree. Inga Gibson, state director for the Humane Society of the United States, which joined in Umberger’s lawsuit, along with Earthjustice and several Milolii residents, said DLNR isn’t complying with state environmental laws because it hasn’t fully studied the environmental impacts of tropical fish collecting.
Ask long-time residents about the state of the reefs and “they do see direct depletion,” Gibson said. “There are species who are rarely, if ever, seen.”
A Chaminade University professor has been studying tropical fish populations off Oahu and agreed with the Humane Society that populations are decreasing, Gibson said. That professor has not yet published her full results, Gibson said.
She said it is “irresponsible” for the state to continue to allow the fish collection. DLNR’s response to community concerns about the fish trade usually comes down to two comments, she said. First, the trade is sustainable, whatever that means.
Second, Gibson often hears, “I see fish. Fish are there. It’s fine.”
That’s not good enough, she added.
“It’s a disposable, wasteful trade,” she said.
Umberger said she doesn’t see the fish reserve areas helping the populations increase, despite Walsh’s studies.
“Some collected species are more abundant in collection areas,” she said, attributing that to the “complex nature of a coral reef system. Overall, their numbers are much worse than they were in 2000.”
Hawaii is behind only Indonesia and the Philippines in number of fish exported for sale annually, Umberger said.
The damage from fish collecting extends beyond the fish populations, she said.
“The impacts are to an ecosystem,” Umberger said. ‘There are also conflicts with Hawaiian culture and ethics. Wild animals are almost universally considered to be unfit for use as pets.”
DLNR has the authority to ban fish collecting if it had the will to do so, she said.
Umberger even made a financial argument against tropical fish collecting. The state issued 54 permits this year; the permit is free. The roughly $250,000 a year collected in taxes on the fish sales isn’t enough to cover the costs to enforce the department’s rules.
“The state taxpayers are subsidizing an industry that is taking so much,” she added. But without any limits on the number of fish a collector can take, “the way it’s written now, there’s nothing to enforce.”
Email Erin Miller at email@example.com.