Enslaving the World's Reef Fish

Commentary by Sea Shepherd Advisory Board Member Robert Wintner

A Brief History of Some Efforts to Date (August, '07) to Stop the Grab-Ass, Free-For-All Extraction Now Decimating World Reefs.

Here's where we've been & where we might go:

The Main Hawaiian Islands now have "ghost" reefs off many leeward shores, with healthy coral but very few fish-not a single yellow tang can be found on most reefs, where they schooled by the hundreds 10 years ago-by the thousands 30-50 years ago. Water degradation & silting from development account for some decline in fish populations, but the biggest cause is massive extraction by aquarium collectors (& gill netters). Aquarium collectors take 8-10 million "ornamental" fish from Hawaii reefs annually with no regulation and no limit to their take.

For years the state's official number was ½ million fish taken per year, including 300,000 yellow tangs. Dan Polhemus, State Administrator of the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR), sat down in early August with a key panel, including the biggest aquarium fish exporter in Hawaii, who provided accurate catch stats. The "official" take now reflects the grim reality.

Milolii is the last working fishing village in Hawaii-electricity by generator, water by catchments-way south on the Kona coast, and a steady target for collectors from Kailua Kona, some of whom say that they collect with care, but once they get to a reef, they collect all the fish, because "less scrupulous" collectors would only gather them tomorrow anyway. This is the grab-ass, free-for-all & crime against nature now prevailing in Hawaii. The Milolii community feels violated by aquarium collectors strip-mining reefs after generations of balanced management by Hawaiians. Milolii supports any campaign to rid the near shore of this mad extraction. Their voice is Hawaiian, with significant influence.

The Kona Coast (about 150 miles) does have an FRA (Fish Replenishment Area) system that has facilitated some recovery of more than half the 15 or so heavily collected species. New fads and appetites in Asia & the U.S. may pre-empt this marginal recovery. I.e. the Beijing government now promotes home aquaria to its growing class of rich people: wall-to-wall-to-wall aquaria for mature adult "ornamental" reef fish-brood stock. The trend values volume and custom made tanks of leaded crystal glass. Sumner Redstone, CEO of Viacom, told a PBS interviewer last year that he went out on one of those boats they have there in Hawaii where you can look at the fish, and by God his home aquarium wrapping 3 walls has "more fish than they got in all Hawaii." This old man out of touch with nature is more the rule than the exception and illustrates this pathetic trend. Consider Michael Dell's monster fish tank on the Big Island, along with support techs named Steve or Elaine who speak Hindi, next time you ponder a Dell computer.

Worse yet is the growing appetite in Asia for big yellow tangs-to EAT!

The FRA system on the Kona coast alternates no-collecting zones with plunder zones. Plunder zone populations are up as result of overflow from FRA zones. But FRA constraints apply only to aquarium collectors-bag netters can still catch the 40-year-old brood tangs for export to Asia, where ogres under bridges pay top dollar for this latest "delicacy." Waning supply spurs demand. Eating the last of a species appears to be a particular honor in Asia. A single consolation is that ciguatera toxin is present in most reef organisms & transmitted by ingestion up the food chain. Ciguatera doesn't hurt sea creatures but will disabuse humans of their reefy appetite with 2 years of itching & then death. Have a nice day. Ciguatera incidence in humans is up dramatically on all islands, especially Kauai. FYI, ulua (jack crevalle) is a popular food fish that is also an apex predator & primary carrier.

Of greater concern on the Kona coast is the continuing disappearance of 8 species of reef fish, collected to invisibility. Are they endangered? Who knows? Official status would take years and millions of dollars to establish. We who visit the reefs often see no more anthius, flame angel, bandit angel, dragon moray, Hawaiian turkeyfish, blue stripe butterfly or Tinker's butterfly. Quickly going is the teardrop butterfly.

Most hateful is that 3 of the 10 reef fish most demanded by aquarists are the ornate butterfly, Moorish idol and cleaner wrasse. A cleaner wrasse needs 35-40 fish to clean, in order to survive. They die in aquaria. Ornate butterfly and Moorish idol are coralvores who will starve to death in 30 days, who are sold & shipped out with a 15-day live guarantee. Meanwhile, a reef with no cleaner wrasse will soon suffer parasites and disease. Yet demand is on the rise.

Economically speaking, a yellow tang lives to 45 years on the reef with repeated revenue by amusing those tourists who like to stare at the colorful fish while sucking air through a plastic tube. The same yellow tang will die in a tank at 2 years max-if the tank is perfectly maintained, and if the tang or other fish came from Hawaii. All reef fish from Indonesia, the Philippines, Andaman Sea, South China Sea et al now have compromised liver function from residual cyanide used over the years in fish collection. Any fish coming from those waters will die in a few months to 2 years in captivity. Veteran collectors in those areas have yellow eyes, jaundiced from exposure to cyanide.

The economic disjunction is staggering. Aquarium collectors here generate $20 million. Water-based tourism generates a billion dollars annual, or 500 to 1. Worse yet, a yellow tang wholesales to the mainland for $3, where it retails at $45-60. Hawaii gets the chump change, which, historically, is for chumps. 1-2 more adult tangs will die en route for each surviving tang.

At the Hawaii Aquatics Conference in December, 2006, Dr. Ivor Williams delivered DAR's official line on FRA success, beginning with the "official" stats, that 500,000 "ornamental" fish are sold annual though "we can't be certain of accuracy on these numbers." He went on to discuss the 6 or 8 "species of concern," those species still MIA, though not officially extinct till Federal moolah can pay for scientific studies. He closed by saying "we don't really know where these species of concern are going or why, but we're happy to report that we still have trophic balance on our reefs." Trophic balance means distribution and balance of species.

But yellow tangs are herbivores, and Hawaii reefs are choking with limu, both native and invasive. It's tough to call bullshit on a good guy who is a good scientist, but the moment was of record, so I called: "Rather than saying that we can't be certain of accuracy on the stats, would we not be more precise in saying that we can be certain of inaccuracy on the stats?"

"Well, er, uh, yes! We could say that."

"We now have evidence that 8-10 million aquarium fish are shipping out of Hawaii every year, mostly herbivores. It doesn't take a rocket or marine scientist to get in the water & see how badly our reefs are decimated."

No comment.

"Which means that we do know where these species of concern went. They went away in Styrofoam coolers with little air stones inside."

This diatribe was not a victory but illustrates the difficult process of changing public perception-from what special interests want it to be, to the truth based in reality. Dr. Williams & I had a nice chat after, & he is now far more apprised of the reality we perceive.

NO LOCAL or State government currently regulates species export outside the CITES list or the Endangered Species act. All species are fair game for unlimited trade if they don't appear on those lists-exotic reptiles or primates from Indonesia or a casual container of parrots from South America. Besides Endangered Species & CITES, local, regional or state constraints on wildlife export are virtually non-existent around the world.

In recent years the collectors wiped out the hermit crab population around Oahu, taking & selling 300,000 hermits @ 11 cents! For gross revenue of $33,000 a species was eliminated. Reintroduction would cost about $40 million & a few decades of studies. Then they went for feather duster worms to meet aquarium demand. Feather dusters live in the rocks; catching them is easy, once you smash the rocks.

Meanwhile, the biggest "ornamental" fish exporter in Hawaii sees the writing on the wall-that his successful business will soon founder for lack of inventory. He now sends 3 boats regular to Christmas Island for flame angelfish-electric red with 4 black bars. None are left in Hawaii, though world demand for flame angels is 10,000 fish per day. Flame angels wholesale @ $40, though this exporter says his most valuable asset is his reputation for selling fish handled with care, from reefs never exposed to cyanide. He said would-be competitors in Honolulu saw his success and went to Christmas Island to bag thousands of fish that all died on the way home or in poorly managed garage tanks. All the dead fish were shipped out to aquarists, who were then told that the loss was theirs, who then had no recourse but to order new fish elsewhere.

The 25 exporters operating in Hawaii are invisible, buying and shipping from unmarked warehouses. The 8-10 million "ornamentals" taken from Hawaii are annual. Collectors began at 20', then went to 40' and then 60'. Now they dive to 80'-at night everywhere but Kona.

The challenge upon us is to expose the crime and the devastation. It has gone unreported for years and now threatens reefs worldwide. Aquarium hobbyists in the U.S. are mostly male, 30-50. We are told that most are indifferent to reef death or alternatives. They want wild-caught fish, not captive bred, knowing that the wild fish will only survive 6-24 months. The movie Finding Nemo spawned crushing demand for clownfish, the marine species most easily bred in captivity, yet captive-bred clownfish don't swim as excitedly as wild-caught. So pet shops now promote new shipments of wild-caught clownfish, swimming excitedly. The Indonesia government last year increased its aquarium research budget 5-fold in the captive breeding of fancy goldfish, the bright orange guys with the gin gut, bug eyes & 3 tails. Freshwater tanks allow a new dimension to hobbyists in the many beautiful plants that support other tank creatures too, like algae eaters and scavengers with no effect on reefs. Public exposure of the facts will be a vital component in deconstructing the aquarium collecting industry.

We must 1) stay on point, avoiding rhetoric or emotion & 2) keep a soft touch-no hostility. We want to convert home hobbyists, not get them pissed off in a name-calling exchange. We want to shame them gently. I think of the internet pedophiles lured into the kitchen where the MSNBC cameras are rolling so the world can see them-they hang their heads, knowing their appetite is so wicked. Aquarium keeping is similarly shameful, but the perpetrators must be treated with understanding and help toward rehabilitation.

The current tsunami of green reverence is tricky, with every money monger showing a pulse calling himself green-including the aquarium industrialists in their multi-billion dollar pursuit, stripping every reef in the world while calling for "appropriate" or "sustainable" techniques. The next big show is the Marine Aquarium Council National Association (MACNA) in Pittsburg, September 14-16, 2007, where presenters with credentials will make hobbyists feel good about what they're doing. Can you be there to express a sentiment of a different nature?

Let us know if you can help otherwise by sending your name, address, email & area of expertise or willingness to reefdefense@snorkelbob.com

All ideas, insights, connections, commitments and comments are welcome. Thank you for jumping in. Please talk this up, especially when you see reef fish in tanks anywhere. I'm not okay. You're not okay. This is not okay.

Hail Atlantis!


Robert Wintner is the nom de plume (et la guerre) of Snorkel Bob, Himself. He is on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Board of Advisors and also serves as Executive Director of The Snorkel Bob Foundation.