An Aquarist’s Notes: Turbulence in Hawaii

Butterflyfishes on the west coast of the Big Island of Hawaii where aquarium collectors are active. Image by Eric Sorensen, WSU. An Aquarist’s Notes: Turbulence in Hawaii I first went to Hawaii on assignment for CORAL Magazine in 2010, and for the better part of four years I have covered that state’s aquarium fishery. I expected to find a fishery full of complicated regulations and even more complicated conflict. I found the latter in spades, but the former, to my surprise, didn’t really exist. Regulations were relatively few and far between—no total allowable catches (TACs), no quotas, no bag limits, no limited entry. I was, quite frankly, shocked that a commercial fishery in U.S. waters would be so unregulated. The fishers I interviewed, especially on Big Island, didn’t view it that way. Many felt they were being unfairly targeted and that veils of regulation were being drawn around them like the barrier nets they use to catch aquarium fishes. Some felt they had consistently given ground, made concessions in the face of anti-trade activism. Some were ready to make a stand, saying they couldn’t—wouldn’t—give any more. Some of these fishers opposed the rules package just signed by the governor. A few of them still oppose it, although they are not willing to say so on the record. Those fishers who stand in opposition to the new rules have some strange bedfellows. There are the anti-trade activists who say the rules don’t go far enough; the most extreme will not be satisfied with anything short of a fishery closure. Then there are mainland aquarists who are lukewarm on the new rules. They worry that a White List will make it more difficult to acquire some species with which they want to work in the short term. They anticipate a slippery slope that will lead to fewer and fewer species remaining available to trade in the long run. Personally, I was pleased to see the governor sign the rules package. I’m pleased because I see it as a step forward for aquarium fisheries in general. I see an opportunity to manage the fishery based on real data. The data really does matter, and rather than less, we need more. This rules package takes a relatively small swath of ocean—a shoreline of less than 150 miles—and says we’re going to manage it based on something more than anecdote and emotion. I look forward to reporting on the progress and talking about how this may be a model viable for export to other aquarium fisheries in far worse shape than Hawaii’s. Hawaii is on a path of good, data-based, adaptive management of its aquarium fishery. This type of management can protect the fishery in terms of both environmental sustainability and economic value. It replaces a messy form of conflict resolution with a multi-stakeholder, community-based approach, and now that the new rules are law, I think we all owe it to the people, the process, and the potential to get behind them.

Brittle Stars: White Wedding

By Daniel Knop Web Bonus Content from the September/October 2013 Issue of CORAL Magazine Additional Bonus Brittle Star Articles Page 30 top Brittle stars scurry to the surface. Page 30 bottom Brittle stars’ arms intertwined in a dense network. Page 31 top left The crowded animals compete for the highest spot, and some specimens even climb out of the water. Page 31 bottom Thick white clouds of sperm exit from the genital slits. Page 32 top left This is a typical posture: the oral disc is raised to squeeze the sperm out through the genital slits. Page 32 bottom left Others join in from near the water’s surface. Page 32 right In contrast lighting, the five- or six-armed stars exhibit a white comet tail—reminiscent of a “white wedding.” TEXT Spider-like, they emerged from all cracks and crevices. It looked almost like an alien invasion in a science fiction movie. Countless arms waved through the water, probed the environment, and attached themselves to rocks to pull themselves up. Each individual wanted to be first, to find the best place. The urge of a brittle star to climb—from the rock structure, up the aquarium glass, to the surface—is so powerful that some specimens came out of the water, standing on the bodies of their fellows. With almost blind zeal, half a hundred of these echinoderms assembled, as if following a secret command. However, it was not blind obedience or fear that drove them, but the irrepressible wish to reproduce: a brittle star wedding was imminent! Unlike other invertebrates that mate and exchange their genetic material directly, free spawners must synchronize their germ cell release. Therefore, they need a trigger that sets in motion the complex reproductive process. For these brittle stars, often referred to as Ophiocoma pumila in the hobby, that trigger is a sudden change in the environment—in this case a partial water change. As soon as the fresh sea water had flowed into the aquarium and mixed with the old water, the first arms stretched out from under the rocks. Within moments the aquarium, which had shown no sign of a brittle star before the water change, was teeming with them. These animals normally hide during the day and come out at to scavenge at night, but now they suddenly moved out into the open, despite all the dangers, to comply with their biological directive: reproduction. While most brittle star species are dioecious, some are hermaphroditic. Some free-spawning hermaphroditic species exclusively release sperm, while the oocytes remain in the body and are fertilized by the sperm of other individuals. The larvae of these hermaphroditic breeders remain in the respiratory cavities, or bursae, and mature there. On each side of the armpit on the oral side there are slit-shaped genital openings to the bursae—sac-like invaginations that are usually used for respiration. The animal reduces its volume by contracting the oral disc muscles to eject water and increases its volume by breathing in oxygen-rich water. The bursae also contain the gonads. Here, the sperm mature and are stored in a low-liquid form. During spawning, the gonads empty the sperm into the bursae, which serve as reservoirs. The germ cells are diluted with water, so the amount of sperm that finally emerges through the openings at the bases of the arms appears to be very great. In seemingly endless swells, this white mass exits through the genital slits, drips down, and forms elongated streaks in the open water. In contrast lighting, the five or six-armed stars look like comets with white tails. The sperm gradually mixes with the surrounding water to form a homogeneous, whitish mist that envelops everything. Within about an hour, most of the 50 brittle stars had released sperm. Some had remained near their hiding places in the typical spawning posture, with exposed oral discs. However, most of the small echinoderms had taken the more daring path, climbing up to the water’s surface in order to ensure that their own genes were spread as widely as possible. Some in top form unloaded huge masses into the 16-gallon (60-L) aquarium. The turbidity was significant, but none of the other aquarium animals developed signs of a lack of oxygen or other discomfort. The skimmer continued to work normally and showed no tendency to bubble over. A short time later, the tiny reef had returned to normal and there was no sign of the brittle stars’ “white wedding.”

Sea Shepherd Launches Anti-Aquarium Trade Campaign in Hawaii

Sea Shepherd Vice-President Robert Wintner is a veteran campaigner against the aquarium trade and what he claims are its “devastating impact” on Hawaii reefs. Photo: Deborah Bassett / Sea Shepherd Originally Posted on May 14, 2013 By Ret Talbot, CORAL Magazine Senior Editor Today the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society launched Operation Reef Defense, a campaign spearheaded by Sea Shepherd Vice-President Robert Wintner to shut down marine aquarium fisheries. In the Jan/Feb 2011 issue of Coral Magazine, I wrote an article called “Postcards from Hawaii” in which I looked at the past, present and future of Hawaii’s marine aquarium fisheries. In researching the article, I sat down with a lot of people, including Wintner. The Sea Shepherd website had recently published his essay entitled “The Dark Hobby; Can We Stop the Devastating Impact of Home Aquaria on Reefs Worldwide?” on its website, and this single action, especially given the popularity of Sea Shepherd’s “Whale Wars” television series with aquarists, made Wintner a household name with many on the mainland. I wrote: When the anti-whaling Sea Shepherd Society published his essay…it was greeted with perfunctory expletives by many in the Hawaiian Islands familiar with his crusade. More than a few concerned aquarists, on the other hand, wanted to know if Wintner’s claim that the aquarium trade aggressively and irresponsibly overharvests fish in Hawaii was factual. More than one asked questions in this vein: “If the trade isn’t sustainable in Hawaii, how can it be sustainable in developing island nations where oversight and regulation is not what it is in the U.S.?” My interview with Wintner was enlightening. Through it, I came to realize that, when pushed, Wintner was not really interested in looking at the data and discussing the sustainability of the marine aquarium fishery in Hawaii because, quite simply, he refuses to view it as a fishery. Here’s the way I summed up my exchange with Wintner in the article in Coral: Wintner and I sat down at a Starbucks on the Dairy Road not far from the airport to discuss the trade. Wintner begins by telling me his own story; this campaign against the aquarium trade is, after all, deeply personal for him. Wintner’s argument is primarily rooted in his own experience diving the reefs of Maui. He tells me there was once “an abundance of fish” in Hawaii. Now the “aquarium hunters” have diminished that abundance. “Aquarium hunters have oppressed Hawaii’s reefs for years,” he says. “With no limit on catch or number of catchers.” If it doesn’t stop, Wintner contends, there will be no fish left. “Ninety-eight percent of Hawaii’s reefs can be emptied of every fish by the aquarium trade, and it’s legal.” I proffer that this is an exaggeration not based in fact. For example, 35% of the reefs on the Big Island of Hawaii, which is where the aquarium trade is concentrated, are completely off-limits to livestock collectors. I suggest that this is hyperbole in the service of his ends, but Wintner remains firm. “They can do whatever they want,” he says. What about the permitting and reporting system? I ask. “Anyone with Internet access and 50 bucks can get a permit…and there are huge discrepancies between reported catch and actual catch,” Wintner counters. “The Division of Aquatic Resources [DAR] has admitted that the report of catch of 1 to 2 million fish per year is off by a factor of two to five times.” DAR’s published numbers do not bear any resemblance to those Wintner attributes to them. But still, I continue, the fishery is managed by the state to be sustainable, right? “A state agency manages the trade as a ‘fishery,’ and [the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR)] calls the aquarium trade ‘sustainable,’” Wintner admits, “but it’s really nothing more than disposable wildlife pet trafficking for the money. By sustainable the DLNR means taking all but a few brood fish so the species won’t collapse.” I have reams of data from marine scientists in my notebook on the table between us that clearly refute Wintner’s claims. While there are myriad ways to interpret the data, there is no scenario in which any one species has been overfished to the point where only a few brood fish remain. Based on my reading of the data, and the interviews I have already conducted, I suspect that the fishery needs to be better managed if it is to continue to be both robust and sustainable, but what I’m really interested in knowing is whether or not Wintner thinks the fishery itself is unsustainable at present. “Sustainability ignores the ethical issue,” Wintner responds. And that’s when I get it. Debating whether or not the marine aquarium fishery is sustainable is not an option with Wintner because he doesn’t agree to use the accepted language of fisheries management when it comes to marine aquarium fishes. For him, this is not about sustainability—it is about morality. As our conversation continues, Wintner won’t even discuss the marine aquarium fishery as a fishery. “We don’t use the ‘f word,” he says, referring to fishing. “This isn’t fishing. Fishing is about sustenance. This is wildlife trafficking for the pet trade, and people shouldn’t keep wild animals. This is a crime against nature being committed in Hawaii,” he says. “I am here because I have a relationship with fish…It’s a moral issue.” As I drive the road to Hana later that day to meet with a cultural practitioner, I think back over my conversation with Wintner. His arguments are about ethics and morality. They are about his own individual relationships with fishes, not unlike the relationship between the girl and the Crosshatch Triggerfish I observed at the Waikiki Aquarium. I can respect that, even if I don’t agree with his position. That said, it is important to understand that Wintner is not making an argument against the so-called “trop” or AQ fishery, for, by his own admission, he does not acknowledge the existence of a marine aquarium fishery. While he sometimes uses data—hard numbers—to support his position, when pushed he always comes back to his central premise: the marine aquarium trade is immoral. I share this blast from the past with you today because I think my findings in 2010 regarding Wintner and his motivations and strategy hold true today, and it makes me very suspect of Operation Reef Defense. I have spent a lot of time in Hawaii since that article was published. I have spent countless hours with fisheries biologists and fishers, environmentalists and politicians. In short, I have immersed myself in researching the aquarium fishery in Hawaii and its continued path to becoming more transparent, better regulated and, ultimately, sustainable. Without getting into the specifics here, I can say with great confidence that the best available science does not support Wintner’s claims about the State’s aquarium fishery. Further, if the claims being made about the aquarium fishery were true, we should be very worried about other far larger fisheries in Hawaii that lack the data to demonstrate sustainability and the regulation to insure it. As I said back in 2011, and I’ll say again now, if Wintner believes keeping an animal in an aquarium is immoral, I can respect that. If he wants to make an argument that the aquarium trade should be banned because the act of collecting an animal and putting it in an aquarium is immoral, I can respect that. What I can’t respect is ignoring the best available science. What I can’t respect is attempting to railroad a constructive multi-stakeholder process and a larger dialog about sustainability within aquarium fisheries worldwide in order to further one’s own ethical agenda. Like many of the fisheries about which I write, aquarium fisheries are far from perfect, but they are also not the monster Wintner makes them out to be. I have seen first hand, for example, how sustainable aquarium fisheries around the world can play a critical role in conserving reef ecosystems, supporting coastal villages and maintaining cultural identities and connectedness to critical resources. There are those who will say that I’m off on a tangent here. They will say that Operation Reef Defense is not about simply attacking the aquarium trade. After all, the press release issued today announcing Operation Reef Defense states the campaign is “a global campaign to end the destruction of coral reefs and the many threats they face worldwide,” right? Wrong. Look at the images on the website (see screenshot pictured here), and consider the emphasis on aquarium fisheries versus other anthropogenic stressors to coral reefs. If this campaign was really about defending reefs against the most significant impacts, wouldn’t we see pictures of terrestrial runoff, coastal development, carbon producing machines, and, yes, even mask and snorkel-wielding tourists trampling Hawaii’s reefs? Instead we only see images related to aquarium fishing. Isn’t it clear what’s going on here? My hope would be that the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society might take another look at Operation Reef Defense. I think we all know coral reefs worldwide do need defending, and I would invite Sea Shepherd to make this campaign about taking actions that will address the root issues, not further the agenda of an individual. If that were the case, I suspect more than one aquarist would become an ally in helping Sea Shepherd defend the world’s reefs, while at the same time insuring the marine aquarium fisheries on which their hobby depends continue to become truly sustainable fisheries that create real economic incentive to conserve and continue to inspire millions to care about that which lies just beneath the surface. Read Ret Talbot’s Blog from Maine
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