New Article Exposes Dark Side of Hawaii’s Aquarium Trade…or Simply Ramps up the Rhetoic?

“Better research could lead to better management [of Hawaii’s marine aquarium fishery], or perhaps a complete ban of the aquarium industry altogether. The forthcoming change of Hawaii’s state government may assist this process.” -Elizabeth Claire Alberts in The Ecologist

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 12.23.57 AMI’ve been covering Hawaii’s aquarium fishery since 2010 for several publications, and while Elizabeth Claire Alberts gets some of it right in her story titled “The dark side of Hawaii’s aquarium trade” that appeared today in The Ecologistmuch of her reporting in the piece is not supported by the data, and some of it is just plain wrong.

This isn’t terribly surprising. The longstanding debate over Hawaii’s aquarium trade is a highly emotional one, and that emotion has more often than not taken precedence over data. Now with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society taking an active role in Hawaii against the aquarium trade, Hawaii’s aquarium fishery has been back in the headlines. Unfortunately, many of those headlines have been about emotion rather than data and Alberts’ article appears to continue that trend by ignoring or dismissing the best available science in favor of an argumentum ad passiones–an appeal to emotion.

“Not only do fish die as they are captured and transported,” she writes in the article, “but they don’t live long in captivity, often dying from fin rot or septicaemia. Therefore, the aquarium trade demands a constant, insatiable supply of reef wildlife.”

Anyone who loves the oceans, animals or simply life, for that matter, does not want to think about a trade or an industry causing death because of insatiable demand. We certainly do not want to hear about “Hawaii’s coral reefs…experiencing a daily massacre.” There is no question that some fishes harvested for the aquarium trade die before reaching an aquarist’s tank. There is no question that some fishes harvested for the aquarium trade die prematurely in aquarists’ tanks. There is also no question that some fishes harvested for the aquarium trade live longer than their counterparts in the wild. Survivability post-harvest is an important point of discussion, but it isn’t necessarily a discussion about sustainability or how well a fishery is managed. Consider that 100% of fishes harvested for food fisheries die…along with a disconcerting amount of bycatch in many fisheries. If Alberts really wants to talk about massacres…

My point is that it’s important to maintain perspective and make sure our efforts to improve fisheries and the oceans in general are well-placed. This is especially true in a state such as Hawaii, where both recreational and commercial food fisheries are so important (not to mention tourism and the attendant coastal development). When one looks at global food fisheries, the cumulative bycatch–those animals landed accidentally and then discarded–is significantly larger than the entirety of the global aquarium harvest. I don’t say this to deflect blame from aquarium fisheries or the aquarium trade in general, but if we are really committed to doing right by the oceans, we must act based on data, rather than just picking the lowest hanging fruit and ignoring the rest.

Alberts writes in her piece that “Dr. Bill Walsh…has published innumerable papers that suggest the aquarium trade is ‘sustainable.'” Dr. William Walsh is a state aquatic biologist who works with the Division of Aquatic Resources, and it’s true he has called Hawaii’s aquarium fishery sustainable. Actually, in my first interview with him in 2010 before a comprehensive rules package was passed to better manage the fishery, he told me it could be a sustainable fishery based on the data. The vast majority of the peer-reviewed science on Hawaii’s aquarium fishery agrees and concludes it is a sustainable fishery–even a model fishery. Despite this, Alberts goes on in her piece to quote Rene Umberger, one of the leading anti-aquarium trade activists in Hawaii, saying she believes Walsh’s data is skewed: “He’s spinning this story because he’s emotionally vested.” 

It’s unfortunate Alberts didn’t have the opportunity to interview Walsh. Of all the people I have interviewed about Hawaii’s aquarium fishery (Umberger included), Walsh is one of the least emotionally vested individuals. Assessing and helping manage Hawaii’s aquarium fishery is a larger part of his job than it should be because of how contentious the issue is. Yes, his job is demanding, and he is professionally vested nearly daily in the aquarium fishery as a scientist, but if you want to see Walsh emotionally invested, I suggest you walk his property with him and ask him to tell you about his fruit trees. I suggest you discuss literature or art with him, or ask him about the best clam chowder in Hawaii.

It’s also unfortunate Alberts didn’t have the opportunity to interview some of the aquarium fishers in Hawaii. If she had, she would know that some of them are as ready to throw Walsh under the bus as Umberger or any of the other anti-trade activists are. To me that suggests he’s following the data wherever it might lead. Like I said, it’s a highly emotional fishery. You can’t paint it with a broad brush.

Despite our differences in our respective assessments of Hawaii’s aquarium fishery, Alberts’ and I are in absolute agreement on one point: “Better research could lead to better management.” As I’ve written here often, I believe adaptive, data-based fisheries management is far better for ecosystems, fishers and fisher communities than raw emotion. While it’s important to engage people through impassioned articles, social media and activism, it’s also crucial for journalists to remain true to the data–to report accurately and in as unbiased a fashion as possible. When I first went to Hawaii in 2010 to cover the aquarium fishery, the fishery was one of the best studied and best managed fisheries in the State, and yet it could be better. Through a lengthy multi-stakeholder process on which I’ve frequently reported, Hawaii’s aquarium fishery has become a better managed fishery. Today it is a fishery with solid metrics by which to assess and reassess its effects. Yes, there is still progress to make, but to call it “one of the most poorly managed” aquarium fisheries in the world (as Alberts does), is an irresponsible statement simply not supported by anyone’s data.

There are real issues that need to be addressed in the global aquarium trade. Unsustainable, unethical and illegal activity are par for the course in too many aquarium fisheries where transparency is non-existent. I have seen it first hand in travels to source countries, and I have seen it in the data available to anyone who wants to seek it out. I have also seen how aquarium fisheries can provide real economic incentive to conserve embattled reef ecosystems and provide meaningful socio-economic sustainability to fishers and fisher communities. Like most natural resource issues, aquarium fishing is complex and difficult to turn into a black and white, cut and dry, or fish or cut bait issue. This is why a data-centered approach is so important.

The future of Hawaii’s aquarium trade is uncertain given shifting politics and the role activism, media and emotion has played in shaping public perception. Several people who understand the aquarium trade and the challenges it faces have questioned why the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has chosen to make a stand against the aquarium trade in Hawaii when Hawaii’s aquarium fishery is one the best–a model fishery even. I’ve wondered the same thing myself, and I feel fairly confident that it is because of effective activism based on emotion rather than data.

Alberts herself is a self-proclaimed activist, and her article feeds into one side of a heavily polarized debate. Alberts, who, according to her website, “got very involved with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society” during her PhD candidature, is the author of an “eco-memoir” titled “Leaping Aboard: Sea Shepherd Onshore Volunteer Work,” so it’s perhaps not surprising that she puts more weight in what activist like Umberger have told her than what she could find in peer-reviewed science or through interviewing individuals whose perspectives or ideologies may differ from her own pre-conceived notions.

In the final equation, I don’t fault Alberts for writing an impassioned piece relying on much of the same old rhetoric, but I do question if it’s really fair to call it journalism that, as she Tweeted, “exposes” Hawaii’s aquarium trade.

About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
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