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Hawaiian Exports Still Face an Uncertain Future

Posted: April 20, 2011, 1:45 p.m., EDT

By John Dawes

In January of this year, a Senate Bill (SB 580) was discussed by the Hawaii Senate Committee on Water, Land and Housing that could have resulted in the total collapse of the State´s ornamental aquatic sector.

In fact, one sentence summed it all up: “It shall be unlawful for any person at any time to knowingly sell or offer to sell, for aquarium purposes, aquatic life taken from any waters within the jurisdiction of the State.”

There are usually exceptions to most proposed legislation, and in this particular case, the relevant (original) paragraph read: “It shall be illegal to sell or offer for sale any fish and other aquatic life taken under an aquarium permit unless those fish and other aquatic life are sold alive for aquarium purposes(emphasis mine)”. The problem, though, was that the italicised bit had been crossed out in the document that was being presented for consideration, so that it read: “It shall be illegal to sell or offer for sale any fish and other aquatic life taken under an aquarium fish permit”!

Clearly, the proposals drew widespread opposition, and not just from pro-industry groups. Even anti-trade organisations felt that it wouldn’t help matters “on the ground” or “on the reef.”

Click to enlarge.

Yellow tangs, like all other Hawaiian species, will have to meet strict criteria if the Bills currently being considered go through in their present state.
Photo by John Dawes

On February 10, the proposed bill was heard in Committee. The result is that we now have two bills: House Bill 590 (the former Senate Bill 580) and Senate Bill 1098. The former has been assigned to the House Committee on Water, Land and Ocean Resources, and the latter to the Senate Committee on Water, Land and Housing.

Fortunately, there has been an important switch in emphasis with the proposal that a “white list” of species that can be collected for aquarium purposes be developed by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The purpose of the new legislation is now stated as an attempt “to improve the regulation of aquarium aquatic life collecting to protect aquatic life and the marine environment.” In another important change, the department “shall develop and maintain an aquarium collecting white list of aquatic species for each county. No aquatic species shall be collected, possessed, or sold for aquarium purposes in the State unless the species appears on the aquarium collecting white list of the county where the species is collected, possessed, or sold.”

Undoubtedly, this marks an important departure from the original proposals and provides some flexibility and breathing space, but problematic areas remain. How, for example, does the Department reassure itself that a species meets its stated criterion of 180 days’ survival in captivity? No collector or exporter is likely to keep fish this long prior to export. Has the Department got such data available?

And what about the white lists themselves? Will the trade, for example, be consulted regarding the species that should be listed? If so, how? If not, why not? Hawaiian endemic species will not feature on any white list. This begs the question: will this be true even under strict quotas that ensure sustainability?

Then, how feasible is it to establish that “the removal of (a) species does not negatively impact the reef ecosystem by contributing to algae overgrowth for herbivores, parasite overload on other reef fishes for cleaner wrasses and cleaner shrimp, or other harmful results”?

Can all this (plus some other requirements and conditions) be sorted out by June 1, 2011, i.e. the date on which the legislation is supposed to take effect, after which the penalties for non-compliance -- up to $3,000 fines, 90 days´ imprisonment, or both, are (presumably) enforced?

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) for alerting me to the Hawaii situation some time back, and for keeping me updated.

While the above details applied at the time of writing, there could have been further developments in this fast-evolving story by the time we go to press. If so, I will keep our readers informed in a subsequent installment of this column.

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