A Hawaiian Battleground for Marine Conservation

Marine aquarium keepers are at the forefront of conservation.

FishChannelA piece of legislation continues to appear, in one form or another, in the state of Hawaii that would effectively eliminate the collection of marine fishes from the state. Hawaii is where a number of our marine fishes are collected, including the yellow tang, the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a or Picasso trigger
(Rhinecanthus aculeatus
) , many butterflyfishes, and many more. This legislation has come up a number of times and been struck down each time by increasingly narrow margins. In the meanwhile, Hawaii has become a battleground. On the one side are the aquarists and the industry that supports them, a huge segment of the economy including fish collectors, shippers, wholesalers, and eventually much of the marine retail stores in the United States. On the other side are a mixed group of individuals who believe that collection for the marine hobby has destroyed the reefs, and will continue to do so. The word “battle” is often used figuratively, but protesters outside of aquarium stores and the patrons of these stores have actually come to blows on more than one occasion.  

One of the ideas I’ve presented time and time again within the “pages” of “Conservation Corner” is that the aquarium and conservation go hand in hand. Often, I write about why aquarists should care about conservation, and how conservation is important to aquarists. However, the opposite is true: conservationists should care about the aquarium hobby, and the aquarium hobby should be important to them.

I frequently speak at aquarium clubs on the topic of conservation (as well as several other topics). Recently, I’ve begun my talk with a simple experiment: I ask the audience to all raise their hands, and tell them to put their hands down (and keep them down) when I name a place they’ve visited. I then begin naming the various places many aquarium fishes come from:  the Amazon River; lakes Malawi, Tanganyika , Victoria; Myanmar; Australia; Fiji; the Philippines;  Hawaii. The last one usually takes down the most hands, but, generally, anywhere from half to two thirds of the people still have their hands in the air. 

At a guess, I would say that the proportion of aquarists who have visited these places is significantly higher than that of the general population.  I think a lot of people without an interest in fish would have a hard time locating Lake Tanganyika on a map. We’re interested in them, and either visit them or at least dream of doing so because of the fish there. I don’t know what percentage of Americans have visited Hawaii – I could not find any measured statistic on it. If we use the aquarium club estimate, then only about 25 percent of Americans have visited Hawaii.   

The second part of my question asks those people with their hands still in the air to lower them if they’ve ever seen a fish from the above bodies of water, like Hawaii, Fiji, Australia in person. Obviously, among aquarists, every single hand goes down. Some of us have seen, in the flesh, a fish from the Amazon, from the Rift Lakes, from Myanmar, from Australia, from Fiji, from the Philippines, and from Hawaii. Informed aquarists, at one point or another, have kept fish from some of these places, and even a cursory glance around an aquarium store will show these fishes.

Aquarists are able to get a level of exposure and involvement with fishes that cannot be experienced with most types of animals. While many people can and do keep exotic animals as pets, to keep fish is something entirely different.

Plastic plants can substitute for live plants, but they still provide the same cover and sense of security that live plants do – and some would argue that the biofilm that develops on these plants provides the same function as live plants. We may even take tacky to an art form and use a giant burping clam in the tank, but this provides necessary water circulation and aeration. Few pet keepers are required to mimic their pet’s natural habitat the way aquarists do – my dog is actually scared of the woods! 

Being exposed to fishes is vital to conservation efforts.  Ask any nonaquarist from the United States to name five ocean fish, and you’re likely to get answers like “tuna, salmon, sardine, uhmmm. . . dolphin and. . . uh. . .”  If they fish, you might get better answers – but to an average person, the first answers that will spring to mind will be the fish that they eat.  Ask a non aquarist what fish live in small streams around them, and they’ll either tell you “nothing” or “just minnows.” 

But an aquarist can name more species of fish than most pet stores have in stock – and they know what they look like.  Aquarists should be experienced at creating a suitable habitat to keep these fish alive. To an aquarist, a yellow tang is something specific and special. To a non-aquarist, if they know what it is at all, it is just another fish. Our experience with clownfish goes far beyond what Disney can teach us. We know what a Humuhumunukunukuapua’a trigger fish looks like, where it likes to spend its time, what it eats, and more. Conservationists should know how difficult it is to get the general public to care about “just another fish,” but to get people who truly know the fish to care is as easy as a getting a guy in a rainstorm wet. 

The fishes of Hawaii and other places throughout the world are greatly endangered through many causes. Farmland, golf courses, and suburban (and just plain urban) sprawl increase run-off and bring new pollutants to our coastal waters. Increasing CO2 emissions have altered the pH and calcium levels of water, and studies abound on the effects of these on fish and other animals. Food fishing has radically altered food webs. And, yes, in many locales, irresponsible fish collectors for the aquarium trade has damaged reefs

However, aquarists have always shown that they care about their fish and their fish’s habitats far and beyond what the main body of the population does. We recognize that if the habitat of a fish is destroyed and that fish becomes extinct, it will vanish from our aquariums as well. We truly care about our fishes, and have a vested interest in their well being in the wild. Aquarists have shown a willingness to spend extra money to purchase captive-bred organisms, and this segment of the hobby continues to grow, and more species of fish are being offered captive bred every year.

Most importantly, it is aquarists who have worked diligently to find out not only how to keep these organisms alive for the long term in our aquariums, but also how to breed them. Neither coral propagation nor percula clown breeding were worked out in a laboratory, or by conservationists, but in the homes of aquarists.

To switch gears, hundreds of species of freshwater fish are gone from the wild–due to development and pollution– and exist only in the aquariums of dedicated aquarists. This potential exists among marine fishes as well – as frightening a thought as that may be. One day, aquarists may work to develop new strains of familiar species that are more resistant to diseases, tolerant of pollutants, or able to survive in warmer waters – something that may become especially important for coral species. Imagine being able to rebuild decimated reefs with species that can tolerate warmer water, more nutrients, and higher CO2. I’d rather imagine a day when the oceans are made healthy again.   

Those working to preserve coral reefs and their fishes need to realize that the aquarium industry and aquarists are not enemies, but potential allies. Aquarists have a true interest in preserving aquatic habitats, and have shown, time and time again, not only an interest, but a capacity to do so. These two parties need to realize that we have more in common than in conflict, and that together, we can work to truly protect our aquatic habitats from the real villains: climate change, land use run-off and other pollutants, sprawl, and other things that are detrimental to the world’s environment.

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