The dark side of Hawaii's aquarium trade

The Hawaiian cleaner wrasse works full time, keeping reefs from parasite loading. They die in 30 days of captivity but ship out daily - as many as the aquarium collectors can catch. Photo: Rober Wintner.
The Hawaiian cleaner wrasse works full time, keeping reefs from parasite loading. They die in 30 days of captivity but ship out daily - as many as the aquarium collectors can catch. Photo: Rober Wintner.
Hawaii's salt-water aquarium trade is lucrative - but depends on the constant, scarcely regulated collection of wild fish, writes Elizabeth Claire Alberts. With 98% of fish in the trade taken from the wild, and high mortality rates from the moment of collection, Hawaii's coral reefs are experiencing a daily massacre.
Not only do fish die as they are captured and transported, but they don't live long in captivity, often dying from fin rot or septicaemia ... the aquarium trade demands a constant, insatiable supply of reef wildlife.

On 8th May 2014, environmentalist Rene Umberger dove off the Kona coast in Hawaii to document two scuba divers using dip nets to collect tropical fish from a coral reef site.

As Umberger filmed from a distance of 10 metres, one of the fish collectors, Jay Lovell, swam up to her and ripped the air supply from her mouth. (see video below)

If Umberger hadn't been an experienced diver, the incident could have been fatal.

Umberger and her dive partners filmed the attack and gave the footage to state investigators. However, it took nearly three months for Lovell to be charged with second-degree terroristic threatening.

The attack was probably an anomaly, but it created a huge amount of public awareness about the multi-billion dollar aquarium industry.

The aquarium trade is a worldwide problem, but Hawaii has one of the most poorly managed systems. While fish collecting is legal in Hawaii, environmentalists argue that the collectors can easily exploit laws, and that scientists need to properly research the trade's detrimental effects on the marine environment.

Umberger's assault also points to the dark side of the aquarium trade. If collectors resort to violence to avoid being filmed, one must ask: what are they trying to hide?

The aquarium trade is responsible for reef decline

Around the world, coral reef systems are in a state of crisis. They are threatened by ocean acidification, temperature variation, and sea level rise.

Dr. Ku'ulei Rodgers of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology explains that Hawaiian reefs also face numerous local problems like sedimentation, agricultural runoff, overfishing, and of course - fish collecting.

Aquarium trade supporters, however, often downplay the impacts of fish collecting, arguing that it's impossible to know which issue is responsible for reef degradation. Umberger, Director of the environmental group For the Fishes, states that it's actually quite simple to discern if extraction has caused reef decline and depleted fish populations:

"You just need to look at what happens when collecting pressure is removed. For yellow tangs, their populations nearly doubled within four years of area closures in West Hawaii."

The effects of fish collecting can also be understood when examining specific areas suffering from algal growth, Umberger explains:

"If fish collectors remove all herbivores in those areas, the algae wins. On Maui, since the state enacted a no-take herbivore zone where the effluent is having large impacts, things seem to be getting a bit better."

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

According to aquarium collection reports from Oahu - Hawaii's most populated island - fish populations are plummeting. In fact, one study has concluded that the aquarium trade has stressed fisheries in Oahu to the point of collapse. [The Commercial Marine Aquarium Fishery in Hawai‘i, 1976-2003, William J. Walsh, Stephen S.P. Cotton, Jan Dierking and Ivor D. Williams]

Environmentalists believe that other fisheries around the Hawaiian islands are not far behind.

A free-for-all for fish collectors

Despite the rapid decline of coral reef systems, Hawaii has done little to regulate the aquarium industry. To get a fish collecting permit, you just need to fill out an online application on the Department of Land & Natural Resources (DLNR) website.

The permit costs $50, and everyone is eligible. The DLNR has not placed any limits on the number of permits issued each year.

At the same time, some restrictions do apply. In West Hawaii, collectors can only target 40 species on a 'White List'. Fishermen also need to comply with catch or 'bag' limits, however these only apply to two of the 40 listed species.

Umberger argues that these rules don't go far enough: "Since those limits apply to an unlimited number of permittees, the effect on the wildlife population is essentially no limit."

She also reports that collectors often work outside - or just within - the boundary lines of West Hawaii to capture fish excluded from the White List.

No enforcement

Another restriction was the state's 1998 decision to designate 30% of the Kona coast as Fish Replenishment Areas (FRAs), prohibiting the collection of aquarium fish. While this act has made some differences to fish populations and coral reef health, environmentalists argue that the DLNR does not properly monitor these areas for illegal activity.

"There are only three or four officers for the entire West Hawaii coastline", Umberger says, "and they must take care of land and sea conservation issues."

At the 22nd Annual Hawaii Conservation Conference, a DLNR enforcement officer stated that his department did not have the financial ability to do its job properly, which supports Umberger's claim.

The DLNR may have manpower issues, but Umberger also reports that some enforcement officers refuse to check containers without probable cause, and when they do catch offenders, they are only given verbal warnings.

A volunteer report system

William Aila, the current Chairperson of the DLNR, explains that fish collectors must supply their catch reports, which the department uses to monitor populations. However, Mike Long, Director of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's Reef Defense Campaign, argues that this procedure is flawed:

"You basically have a volunteer report system. So I could be taking 5,000 fish a day, and reporting that I caught 73. And there's really no enforcement of that."

Robert Wintner, owner of the Snorkel Bob shops in Hawaii and Vice President of Sea Shepherd, contends that reported fish catches are two to five times higher than current estimates.

So if the Hawaiian aquarium trade says it exports one million fish each year, the actual number could be anywhere from two million to five million.

"Reporting is supposed to track species", Wintner says. "If it's not reported, it's poached."

Fish mortality

Another issue is the undocumented rate of fish mortality. As Umberger explained in a recent edition of National Geographic Weekend, fish begin dying the minute they're removed from the ocean, which means that collectors will extract two or three times more fish than they need to make up the shortfall.

Aquarium collectors, however, don't want the public to know this. Mike Nakachi, Kona resident and owner of Aloha Dive Company, describes how collectors try to secretly discard their dead fish to avoid criticism:

"They're sealing them in plastic bags and throwing everything away themselves. They make sure the dumpster in their facility is locked down."

Despite the precautions some collectors may take, in 2010, two women found over 600 dead fish in a dumpster on the Big Island, sparking public outrage.

Not only do fish die as they are captured and transported, 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.

The United States imports about 11 million fish each year for household and public display aquariums. Western Europe, Japan, and Australia are the other primary importers.

Animal cruelty

Fish are commonly viewed as a 'resource', but conservationists like Wintner would like the public to view fish as 'animals' capable of feelings and emotions. Wintner, who has published several photographic texts that illustrate the social side of fish, argues that these animals display "the same expressions and engagements as dogs and cats."

Wintner's theory is now backed up by scientific research suggesting that fish experience pain, suffering, and other emotions in a similar way to other animals.

At the same time, Wintner emphasises that wild fish should not be treated - or trafficked - as domestic pets. Taking fish away from their natural habitat damages coral reef systems and threatens species survival.

Additionally, it's a cruel practice to keep wildlife in captivity. "There are no good examples of trafficking wildlife for the pet trade", Wintner says. "It's a non-winner on all levels."

Captive breeding

Captive breeding may not be a more compassionate choice, but it could alleviate the demand for reef wildlife. Yet, as Umbger explains, retailers need to be more transparent about the source of their fish.

Customers are often misled to believe they are buying captive-bred fish, when in reality, 98% of fish sold in the aquarium trade are wild caught. And, says Umberger,

"Worldwide demand in volume for these animals can easily be met by captive breeding. But the issue is that there isn't enough variety, and the trade believes hobbyists will become bored if they only have access to 50 species instead of 1,800."

Umberger has developed a new mobile app called 'Tank Watch' that will help consumers determine whether a fish has been captive-bred, or caught off a reef. And, she says, "I'm expecting to launch it within the next couple of months."

Better science, better management

Environmentalists are also calling for better scientific research to be conducted to fully understand the impacts of the aquarium trade.

Dr. Bill Walsh, who works for the DLNR, has published innumerable papers that suggest the aquarium trade is 'sustainable'.However, Umberger believes Walsh's data is skewed: "He's spinning this story because he's emotionally vested."

Meanwhile Sea Shepherd plans to get increasingly involved in the issue, says Mike Long: "I think the research on the aquarium trade is yet to be done. That's certainly something we hope to take a hard look at over the upcoming years."

Better research could lead to better management - or perhaps a complete ban of the aquarium industry altogether. The forthcoming change of Hawaii's state government may assist this process. Governor Neil Abercrombie, who has been in office for four years, recently lost his seat to David Ige in the primary elections.

"With Abercrombie out, it's a safe assumption that Bill Aila will not be appointed as head of DLNR", Umberger says. "And we can only hope that the new governor will put someone in the position who has a more favorable view of Hawaii's coral reefs."



Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a freelance writer and environmental journalist based in Sydney, Australia. To learn more about her, visit


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