By Rene Umberger
This article was originally featured in the Sierra Club Newsletter of September 2009

Increasingly snorkelers and divers in Hawaii are asking “Where have all the fish gone?” Reef fish decline can be attributed to several factors, however none weigh so heavily as the losses due to extraction, including collecting reef animals for the home tanks of hobby aquarists.

According to the U.S. Coral Reef Task Force, “Severe overfishing for the aquarium trade occurs even in the United States. Aquarium fish species have declined by 59% over the last 20 years in Hawaii…Aquarium fishes outside of reserves experience significant declines – from 14% to 97%.”

The fish collected are Hawaii’s most beautiful, unusual and often rarest species. Given that the “marine ornamental” trade operates with few species limits and no limits on the number of fish they may collect, nor on the numbers of permits issued, it’s no wonder reef fish populations are in serious decline.

Hawaii has the highest rate of endemism for warm-water fishes, worldwide. These rare and beautiful species are highly prized by aquarium hobbyists and in fact, 45 percent of Hawaii’s top 20 collected species are endemic. As such, there is no replacement pool to draw from if they are over collected to the point where they cannot rebound, so these unique species could be lost forever. Each example of the sacrifice and waste associated with the aquarium industry diminishes our reefs and ultimately begs moral questions. In 2007, Hawaii’s collectors reported that of the 700,000-plus animals collected, 20,340 animals died before being sold (the true numbers are estimated to be several times higher). Putting 20,340 fish in perspective, it equates roughly to every fish on a reef the size of five football fields.

Half of Hawaii’s 20 most collected species are listed by aquarium experts as “unsuitable for captivity.” The most egregious examples of fish sacrificed for brief entertainment in a tank are the coral-eating butterflyfish, the Moorish Idol and the Hawaiian cleaner

wrasse; all known to starve within weeks because their preferred foods are not available in captivity. Additionally, collecting cleaner wrasses is especially harmful to the reefs; their removal reduces overall fish diversity and abundance quickly in the areas they’re taken from.

Mortalities continue throughout their journey from wholesalers to retailers and finally to hobbyists. Many will die shortly after arriving on the mainland from the stress of being starved, drugged and bagged for shipping, and the rest will succumb because they are almost impossible to keep outside their native reef habitat. Bob Fenner, a well-respected, 40-year veteran of the aquarium industry, wrote, “It is my estimate that even given sustainable collection practices . . . less than one percent live more than a year in captivity.”

Four-fifths of all collected species are herbivores, affecting the reef’s algae/coral balance, and most are Yellow tangs. Recent research in Hawaii shows that Yellow tangs are long-lived, surviving on reefs for decades; the oldest found so far is 41. Collected in Hawaii by the hundreds of thousands annually, suppliers consider them easy to care for and good for beginners, but only a few thousand of them will live beyond a year. The aquarium trade claims the losses are worth it: hobbyists cite their tanks’ “educational value” and industry professionals cite the need for livestock to support their lucrative “dry goods” sales of tanks, filters and lights. Common sense says reef animals are fueling a disposable hobby: When the fish die, they are thrown out and replaced, like cut flowers.

If you believe Hawaii’s reefs can no longer support the luxury trade in reef animals for a hobby, then visit our web site to sign the petition and learn more: www.FortheFishes.org. For questions or to join our “Take Action” mailing list, contact Rene directly at octopus@maui.net. Rene is a scuba instructor, underwater tour guide, member of the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council and is a member of the Sierra Club.


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