Hawaii Aquarium Fish Collecting Bill Tabled

Senate Bill 26 would have required more surveys over what DLNR already performs.

Written by
John Virata

A bill that would have required holders of aquarium fish permits to maintain a log of all fish collected off Hawaii’s reefs and where the fish were collected has been deferred indefinitely, according to a report in the Hawaii Tribune Herald. Senate Bill 26 would also have made the issuing of renewable aquarium fish permits prohibited unless a state Department of Land and Natural Resources (or other credible third party) population survey is conducted, determining that harvesting of marine animals from a specified collection area is sustainable. Specifically, the bill:

“Requires applicants for aquarium fish permits to specify in their application the species to be collected and the collection areas. In the case of indigenous species, the issuance or renewal of aquarium fish permits is prohibited unless a population survey has been conducted and the department has determined that the population of the indigenous species to be collected is sustainable in the collection areas specified in the application.”

Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman William Aila, Jr. said during the hearing that the department has been issuing one year aquarium fish collection permits every year for the last 60 years, and is already analyzing commercial catch data of all fish, including those captured for the aquarium trade. He also said that the DLNR has already done extensive studies on the main collection areas and monitors and manages the areas as well. Aila said that based on the DLNR analysis, the collection of aquarium fish is a sustainable fishery and told lawmakers that there are no depletion or resource problems with fish species targeted for the aquarium trade. Aila also said that DLNR already performs population surveys and disagreed with the bill’s provision that required additional population surveys.

Yellow tang populations in Hawaii.

Yellow tang species profile.


More than 200 people made comments in support of and against the bill. Below are some comments from the Hawaii State government website.


This bill is not based on science. The state already has years of information that it is using to manage the fisheries. This fishery is the most managed fishery in the state. At this time the state has a plan to cut the amount of aquarium fish caught from 240 individuals to a max of 40 individuals that have been vetted by the state( with scientific input). We have forty members in our Association. Thank you.-Big Island Association of Fishpersons

“This requirement should be for the take of all reef fish if the legislature believes it is required, rather then singling out the aquarium fisheries. Further the recreational take of reef fishes for all purposes except aquariums is not monitored or regulated so this should be included in any attempt to protect reef fish further. The aquarium fisheries of all reef fisheries has the most scientific studies showing it is a sustainable fisheries. Further it has the most regulations. Please check with the scientists at DLNR to see if this bill makes any sense and if singling out this one fisheries will provide anything but economic hardship.” –Tony Nahacky

I am writing this testimony in opposition to the proposed bill, SB26, relating to new regulations on the marine aquarium fishery in Hawai‘i. Let me first say that I wholeheartedly endorse the proposed intent of SB26, to ensure the sustainable management of marine fisheries in Hawai‘i, but oppose this bill because it will not achieve its purpose of ensuring sustainable fisheries management and would have serious, unintended consequences in its current form.

This bill seeks to establish location-specific population estimates for all species taken for the aquarium trade and to grant aquarium collection permits only in those cases where DLNR deems that aquarium collection will be unlikely to interfere with the sustainability of each species in each proposed collection area. Currently, population estimates are only available for the 10 most collected fish species for the aquarium trade off of West Hawai‘i (i.e., the Kona Coast off the Big Island of Hawai‘i), though these estimates are very informative on the state of the fishery.
Collectively the West Hawai‘i fishery constitutes about 79% of total aquarium fishery in the state and the 10 most collected fish species constitute 95% of the total aquarium catch. The most heavily collected species, Yellow tang, makes up 81% of the catch. DLNR’s data clearly show that, since at least 1999, densities of Yellow tang off West Hawai‘i in areas open to aquarium collection have been stable at about 40-60% of their abundance in areas closed to fishing. In fact, the overall population of Yellow tang has increased 15% over the last decade. Likewise, for Kole, the second most collected species (11% of the total) densities are stable in collected areas relative to areas closed to fishing and the overall population has increased over the last decade. None of the 10 most collected species show decreasing densities in areas open to aquarium collection relative to areas closed to fishing over the last decade.

When the top 20 most collected species (comprising 99% of the total catch) are pooled there is likewise no difference in their abundance in areas open to aquarium collection vs. areas closed to fishing.
Thus, the West Hawai‘i marine aquarium fishery has all the hallmarks of a sustainable fishery over at least the last decade. I strongly support DLNR’s recent proposed regulations (e.g., creating a White List of Species, using limited entry to the fishery, etc.) to ensure that the fishery continues to be sustainable into the future. Given this strong evidence that even the most heavily targeted species (Yellow tang) in the most heavily fished area (West Hawai‘i) is a sustainable fishery, and the marine aquarium fishery has little or no impact on the vast majority of targeted species in this area, it is highly probable that the impact of the marine aquarium fishery is even smaller (negligible) outside of West Hawai‘i.
For example, DLNR lists the annual aquarium catch on Kaua‘i as a few thousand fish per year. In contrast, DLNR estimates that the recreational and commercial (food) fisheries on Kaua‘i harvest several hundred thousand reef fish per year, meaning that the Kaua‘i marine aquarium fishery constitutes less than 0.3% of the total annual catch of reef fish. Even if the Kaua‘i marine aquarium fishery doubled in size or more it would have no discernible impact on reef fish populations or coral reef health. However, if SB26 were passed, collecting fish for the marine aquarium trade would be instantly illegal on Kaua‘i while the recreational fishery remains essentially unregulated. Indeed, the O‘ahu marine aquarium fishery would also become immediately illegal as would fishing for all species for the marine aquarium trade except the 10 most highly targeted species off West Hawai‘i. Even in West Hawai‘i DLNR estimates that the marine aquarium fishery comprises less than half of the total catch of reef fish, with most of the catch taken by recreational fisherman which, again, would remain essentially unregulated.

This bill would not have the desired effect of maintaining a well-regulated, sustainable fishery and instead would simply make much of the marine aquarium fishery illegal throughout the state. Available evidence strongly suggests that the marine aquarium fishery has been sustainable to date, hence an near total ban is unwarranted. A de facto ban on aquarium collection would cost the state at least dozens of jobs and potentially millions of dollars of annual income, yet would provide no tangible benefit whatsoever. In addition, this bill does not appropriate any funding to DLNR (or a credible third party) to conduct population surveys which would be required to grant collection permits. Thus, passing this bill would constitute an immediate and effectively permanent ban on most collection for the marine aquarium trade without any discernible benefit.
Collection for “aquarium purposes” as defined by the bill specifically would include those “for scientific study”. This means that it would be legal for DLNR to grant a permit to a researcher, such as myself, to collect 1000 specimens of some fish or invertebrate species if I subsequently euthanized those specimens. However, it would be illegal for DLNR to grant me a permit where even a single individual would be kept alive during the course of the study (for example, for a behavioral study). Clearly this makes no sense, but is a consequence of the wording of the bill.
Such a measure would have a chilling effect on many aspects of scientific research throughout the state.

Lastly, SB26 does not define what would constitute a collection “area”, how large of an area can be represented by a population estimate, or how DLNR is to determine if aquarium collection is or is not likely to be sustainable within an area. For example, “West Hawai‘i”, including the entire Kona coast (outside of restricted areas) could constitute a collection “area” under the language of the bill. Likewise, only a tiny patch of reef a few hundred feet in length precisely where DLNR conducts a fish survey could constitute the collection “area” for tens of miles of coastline under the language of the bill. Should DLNR consider a 99% reduction in the density of a species to be sustainable if there is no indication of a declining population or imminent collapse? The language of the bill simply does not allow for effective implementation or management.

Therefore, I oppose SB26 because it does not achieve its objective of supporting a sustainable marine fishery—a goal I strongly endorse—and would have severe, unintended consequences as outlined above.

I strongly support the regulations packages recently proposed by DLNR for the West Hawai‘i and the O‘ahu marine aquarium fisheries. These packages give DLNR tools it needs to effectively manage these fisheries and ensure that they remain sustainable into the future while avoiding significant collateral damage. I urge the legislature to support DLNR in their efforts with those rules packages and to vote down SB26.

Christopher P. Jury
Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology
University of Hawai‘i at Manoa
P.O. Box 1346
Kane‘ohe, HI 96744


This may or may not put reef fish collectors out of business and while that is sad, it is time to take action to do so. There are not enough collectors to really make much difference in the economy, but will definitely make a huge difference in the fish population and healthy reefs and ocean. Mahalo for your consideration!!-Marjorie Erway

I urge you to support a strong definition of “sustainable” such as the excepted one: conventional idea of a sustainable fishery is that it is one that is harvested at a sustainable rate, where the fish population does not decline over time because of fishing practices. Sustainability in fisheries combines theoretical disciplines, such as the population dynamics of fisheries, with practical strategies, such as avoiding overfishing through techniques such as individual fishing quotas, curtailing destructive and illegal fishing practices by lobbying for appropriate law and policy, setting up protected areas, restoring collapsed fisheries, incorporating all externalities involved in harvesting marine ecosystems into fishery economics, educating stakeholders and the wider public, and developing independent certification programs. With such a meaning of sustainable fishing or harvesting, and strict enforcement, our reef fish resource will continue to attract tourists and provide tax and revenue for Hawaii’s future.-Mary Fleming

We strongly support amending this critically important legislation with an appropriate definition of “sustain”/”sustainable”. Hawaii’s current efforts to regulate taking of wild fish from the reefs by collectors is too weak to be effective. For example, our understanding is that resource managers currently consider species populations as “sustained” even if they have been depleted by as much as 90%. The fact that some species MIGHT, POSSIBLY, VERY SLOWLY recover over a period of many years after having been depleted to the 90% level, does nothing to protect or preserve the other legitimate (non-aquarium) uses–recreational, cultural, local fishing, etc.–which are very significantly degraded when 90% of a species disappears. Please stop the plundering of Hawaii’s reefs by unregulated collectors.-Mark Schacht






Article Categories:
Fish · Freshwater Fish