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Hawaii County considers aquarium fish bill

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  • aquatic biologist for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources

KONA, Hawaii >> Hawaii County Council is postponing action on a bill that aims to regulate the off-island transport of aquarium fish.

Bill 318 would require that aquarium fish be transported in at least of one gallon of water per fish and provided with food within 24 hours. 

Under the bill, any person who sells a fish for aquarium use would be prohibited from transporting it in a manner likely to cause injury or death.  

Most of testimony heard Tuesday, during a Committee on Agriculture, Water and Energy Sustainability, was in support of the bill, said South Kona/Kau Councilwoman Brenda Ford. Several speakers said regulation could help halt the depletion of aquatic life edging the island’s Kona Coast. 

Robert Stahl, who runs tour boats and scuba dives in the area, and said he’s witnessed a “truly astonishing decline in fish” in the coral reef. “It’s almost extinction before our eyes,” he said.  

Three-quarters of the aquarium fish species caught in Hawaii are taken from waters off the Kona Coast. The state Board of Land and Natural Resources manages and regulates fisheries in these waters. A panel called the West Hawaii Fisheries Council, which is made up of environmentalists, aquarium fish collectors and others, advises the state on management actions.

The bill exempts Native Hawaiians using fish for cultural purposes as well as any government or nonprofit agency that specializes in the holding of fish for education or scientific study as long as the activity does not involve the sale of aquarium life or for the purpose of transit through any port or airport within the county. 

Anyone found in violation of the bill would be guilty of a petty misdemeanor and would be subject to a $1,000 fine or 30 days in jail, or both. 

Among those speaking in opposition the proposed regulation was Bruce Carlson, director emeritus of the Waikiki Aquarium. 

Addressing the county committee on behalf of 228 accredited member institutions of the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums, Carlson said he has “serious concerns” about Bill 318. For example, he said restrictions put on fasting would do more harm than good since fasting is done to clear the gut of food so the transport bag would not be fouled. When that happens, he said, it leads to toxic levels of ammonia and reduced concentrations of oxygen. 

“The provisions of this bill will not improve the standards of animal welfare; rather they will have the opposite effect leading to higher rates of mortality,” Carlson said in his testimony.  

He also spoke out against the one-gallon rule saying there was a lack of scientific evidence to support the rule.  

Ford said the Council decided to postpone a vote on the bill to allow for new members, who will take their Council seats in December, a chance to hear the issue. The bill may be reopened for public testimony in January, she said. 

Ford, who will vacate her seat because of term limit, said she supports Bill 318. 

“I believe that a total ban of aquarium fish collection is needed on our reefs. The state controls the water and the county only controls what happens on land. That’s why it’s needed,” she said. 

In 2010 and 2011, the Maui County Council put in place measures that aim to protect coral reef habitat and prohibit some practices common to the aquarium pet trade, such as the intentional starvation of fish before transport, the trimming of fins, and the piercing of organs.  

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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