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International Waters: Hawaii Aquarium Legislation Dead…or Is It?

Posted: Aug. 29, 2012, 4:15 p.m., EDT

As readers of this column may recall, I’ve written on several occasions regarding a number of proposed Hawaiian senate bills that would result in the prohibition of, or serious restrictions to, the collection of marine reef fish species for home aquaria.

Some of the proposals (and language employed) have, quite frankly, been unrealistic and unworkable, with essential data and considerations either being omitted or not given due attention.

For example, the latest of these bills (SB 580) would prohibit “any person, at any time, from knowingly or intentionally selling or offering to sell, for aquarium purposes, aquatic life taken from Hawaiian waters.” Specimens for human consumption, for scientific or public display purposes, or those collected by persons “exercising a customary and traditional right for subsistence, cultural or religious purposes” would be allowed.

Fish Marketplace: Hawaii Aquarium Legislation Dead…or Is It?
Exports of Hawaiian-collected reef fishes for home aquaria can continue, at least for the moment. Photo by John Dawes
This, in essence, would exclude collection for home aquaria, except with a permit. These permits, which would be granted by the relevant authorities if the applicants satisfied a number of criteria, would allow such companies or individuals to collect approved specimens—but it would still be illegal for them to sell them.

Anyone caught breaking these rules could be fined up to $1,000 and be imprisoned for 30 days for a first offense, up to $2,000 and 60 days for a second offense, and $3,000 and 90 days for subsequent offenses. In addition, violators could be fined up to $1,000 for each live specimen sold.

Not surprisingly, the SB 580 proposals (like those of all its predecessors) raised passions—and not just within the trade community. Even organizations that are not usually “trade-friendly” objected to the bill, which failed to recognize important data regarding the sustainability of stocks of certain species on the reefs, among many other factors.

When the proposed bill was announced, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) circulated information to all interested parties (including me), explaining the situation, and asking people and organizations to express their concerns and views to the Hawaiian senate committee on Water, Land and Housing (under whose umbrella the bill fell).

Clearly, the combined effect of all these stakeholder submissions (not just from those in the trade) had an effect because, at the time of writing—and after the matter was debated by the Hawaiian legislature for the umpteenth time—the bill was finally abandoned when the 2012 legislative session adjourned.

At the time of the adjournment, the latest revisions to SB 580 included a provision for two marine life conservation areas on Maui, while the sections dealing with the prohibitions of the collecting of specimens for aquarium purposes were deleted. Nonetheless, the 2011-2012 legislative session ended without the modified texts being approved or put out for consultation.

So, for the moment, collectors in Hawaii, as well as their customers and those numerous hobbyists who buy Hawaiian fish, can breathe a little easier. Having said this, it would come as no surprise if the next session, for which no date has been set, were to bring with it new proposals for bans or restrictions. The story, in the view of many within the industry, is just “taking a rest” and nothing more. It is expected to reawaken in the not-too-distant future, with renewed vigor and with as much controversy as ever.

Acknowledgement: I would like to thank PIJAC for keeping me abreast of developments, not just on the Hawaiian aquarium front, but on all aspects of U.S. pet legislation.

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