Emotion over Data – Condemning Hawaii’s Aquarium Fishery

Big Island Shoal (c) Ret Talbot

Big Island Shoal (c) Ret Talbot

10-15-HM-CVR_newstToday Honolulu Magazine published an article that characterizes aquarium fisheries as “horrifying.” No doubt, that assessment will sit well with a majority of the Magazine’s readers, as they peruse the glossy pages replete with information about extravagant dining opportunities, lavish entertainment venues and swanky beachfront real estate. No doubt many readers will be enchanted by the words of poet and professor of English at Kapi‘olani Community College, Gail Harada, who is quoted in the article about her experience visiting the Ocean Rider Seahorse Farm.

“Then they put a seahorse in there, in my hands, but without it touching—just floating there. And then,” she sighed, meltingly, “it curled its tail around my little finger.”

The End of the Magic

The article, titled “You’ll Get to Hold a Seahorse in Your Hands at This Hawaii Farm,” is ostensibly about the Hawaii-based aquaculture facility located near the Kona Airport–a place that offers tours yielding what the author characterizes as “magical” encounters between visitor and seahorse. The magic in the article ends, however, after the poet sighs “meltingly” and the author states emphatically:

Like many reef fish, seahorses are vanishing due to unregulated freelance taking (yes, that’s the industry term) for the aquarium trade.

What began as an engaging, albeit perhaps overwritten, piece about seahorse aquaculture (a fascinating and important story), suddenly pivots to being a mouthpiece for the anti-aquarium fishery movement in Hawaii. “It’s horrifying,” says Ocean Rider founder Carol Scozzi-Schmarr in the article. “People think there are plenty of fish. There aren’t.”

Emotion, Data & Fisheries Management 

Like so many articles about aquarium fisheries and the aquarium trade in popular media, author Don Wallace chooses to rely on emotion rather than data in his piece in Honolulu Magazine. His emotional characterization of aquarium fishing in Hawaii is, at best, myopic and, at worst, dishonest. Hawaii is a place where fisheries of all kinds play an important role in both the economy and the cultural fabric of the islands. Recreational “sport” fisheries, commercial food fisheries, subsistence fisheries, aquarium fisheries, inshore fisheries, offshore fisheries…you can break them down and categorize them in many ways, but at the end of the day, they all boil down to “take,” a term Mr. Wallace apparently abhors.

By definition, a fishery is a place from which fishes (and other animals like sea cucumbers, coral, and seahorses) are taken by the act of fishing. While there are some who are against any form of fishing, most (including Honolulu Magazine, which regularly features seafood restaurants, seafood markets and sport fishing activities) believe it is not the taking that is objectionable, it is when too much is taken.

Fishing takes fishes from the environment. Whether it’s for the plate or for an aquarium doesn’t really matter to the ecosystem itself because the animal is still gone. It also doesn’t matter from a fishery standpoint where the fish ends up. Whether it is served on ice or a plate tomorrow or lives for the next twenty years in an aquarium on the mainland is irrelevant from a management standpoint. The job of fisheries managers is to insure fishery sustainability–to insure the act of fishing does not remove more fishes than are necessary to keep populations stable.

Fisheries management is about data, not emotion.

What the Data Show about Hawaii’s Aquarium Fishery

When it comes to Hawaii’s aquarium fishery, the data is definitively on the side of the fishery, not the anti-aquarium fishery activists. Largely because of the controversy over Hawaii’s aquarium fishery (what Mr. Wallace characterizes as “a particularly sensitive issue in Hawaii”), it is one of the best studied, most data-rich fisheries in the state. It is also, despite Mr. Wallace’s statements to the contrary, regulated. In fact it is more regulated than other state fisheries such as the much larger recreational saltwater fishery, where anglers don’t even require a license to fish.

A responsible approach to this subject would have necessitated Mr. Wallace reaching out to state fisheries managers and asking what the data show about Hawaii’s aquarium fishery. This is especially the case after Wallace quotes Scozzi-Schmarras saying, “It’s horrifying. People think there are plenty of fish. There aren’t.” and then later stating emphatically that yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens) are “overfished.”

Overall Change in Yellow Tang Abundance in FRAs, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Open Areas Where Aquarium Fishing is Allowed

Overall Change in Yellow Tang Abundance in Fisher Replenishment Areas, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and Open Areas Where Aquarium Fishing is Allowed

Had Mr. Wallace sought to independently verify what his source had told him, he would have learned that yellow tang are, in fact, not currently overfished from a fisheries management standpoint. In fact, he would have learned that the population of yellow tang have actually increased over the past 14 years both in protected areas and in areas open to fishing. He would have learned that while fisheries managers may express some concerns about some species commonly taken in the aquarium fishery–the Achilles tang (Acanthurus achilles) is the one I have my eye on–overall they have data clearly showing the fishery overall is well managed. In fact, their concerns about some species have led to both bag and slot limits recently being imposed on several species when fished in the aquarium fishery but not when the same species is fished in the recreational fishery (again, I’d point to the Achilles tang here). That simply makes no sense unless one realizes the power of the sportfishing lobby relative to the power of the aquarium fishing lobby.

The bottom line is that there are legitimate concerns about the global aquarium fishery and aquarium trade. Many of those concerns revolve around a lack of fishery and trade data–a lack of transparency that has made illegal and unethical behavior too common. This is not the case in Hawaii. Hawaii’s aquarium fishery is well managed based on data. Rather than continually repeating the emotional arguments against it, it strikes me that authors like Mr. Wallace may be better served by highlighting the State’s aquarium fishery as a model that could help lead the way to necessary aquarium fishery reform globally.

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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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One Response to Emotion over Data – Condemning Hawaii’s Aquarium Fishery

  1. Pingback: Dory and the Tang Dilemma

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