POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 3, 2011
WAILUKU » State senators have introduced legislation that would impose a statewide ban on collecting reef fish for sale in the aquarium trade to protect the health of Hawaii's coral reefs.
The bill would prohibit the sale of aquatic life taken from state waters for aquarium purposes. Violators would face fines or possible jail time. The legislation would allow exceptions for animals collected for subsistence, traditional or cultural use, human consumption, scientific research or public display.
Lawmakers noted that there have been numerous unsuccessful attempts over the years to ban or limit aquarium fishing in Hawaii but said they are optimistic this could be the year for such a proposal to succeed.
"I think there's just a greater awareness," said Sen. Roz Baker (D, Honokohau-Makena) told The Maui News. "I think people are taking a fresh look at some of the things we need to do to preserve the reef. People come here to enjoy the marine life, and we need to have healthy and robust numbers of fish in the ocean."
The bill hasn't been scheduled for a hearing yet, an essential step if it is to become law.
Baker and two other lawmakers from Maui County -- where the County Council recently passed new aquarium fish trade regulations -- introduced the legislation: Senate President Shan Tsutsui (D, Wailuku-Kahului) and Sen. Kalani English (D, East Maui-Lanai-Molokai).
Robert Wintner, owner of Snorkel Bob's stores in Hawaii and author of "Some Fishes I Have Known," said he supports the bill.
"Hawaii reefs and Hawaii fish populations are in decline," he said. "We've known this for years."
Wintner said he and other advocates had pushed for legislation for years with little result. But he shared Baker's belief that the proposal might have a better chance in the current Legislature.
"We've gotten huge resonance from the Maui bills passing," he said.
Baker said she was particularly concerned about the removal of plant-eating fish, which help protect reefs from invasive algae, and about the collection of species too fragile to survive the transition from their natural environment to a tank.
"It's really a waste," Baker said. "We need to have a serious look at this industry."
English said the proposals could gain more traction this year with new members in the Legislature, and Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie in the executive office.
"There's fresh ideas, a fresh outlook, and I also think people are more aware of the fact that there is depletion going on," he said.
In the House, state Rep. Gil Keith-Agaran (D, Kahului-Paia) and Rep. Chris Lee (D, Lanikai-Waimanalo) introduced a bill that would require the state to develop a list of aquatic species that may be collected or sold. Keith-Agaran said the measure would ensure that any fish collection was sustainable.
"We have to put the brakes on this and allow the fish to regenerate," Keith-Agaran said.