MILOLII, Hawaii Island >> They both come from a long line of fishing families.
For generations, the families of Wilfred “Willy” Kaupiko, 73, and Chelsey Lokalia Kuahuia Faavesi, 29, relied on the ocean for food and income.
Though separated in age by more than four decades, the two Big Island residents share other similarities in their backgrounds.
Both live in this tiny, isolated South Kona coastal community, one of Hawaii’s last traditional fishing villages.
Both are Native Hawaiian fishers.
And both see the ocean as an integral part of their heritage, a source of nourishment, fulfillment and inspiration.
“This is all my garden,” said Kaupiko, gesturing to the coastal waters off the village on a recent February morning.
“Fishing is not a hobby,” Faavesi said in a separate interview. “It’s our lifestyle.”
There is one aspect of fishing, though, that these two Milolii villagers don’t share.
They have vastly different views on Hawaii’s aquarium trade, a small but controversial industry that has supplied millions of colorful tropical fish to saltwater aquariums the world over.
Kaupiko, who has been called the unofficial mayor of the village, wants the state to shut down the $2 million-plus industry. Faavesi, who catches fish for the trade, doesn’t.
Kaupiko said the industry has harmed fishing grounds that village families have relied on for generations. Faavesi said the trade harvests fish in a sustainable way and provides employment, especially helpful in an isolated place like Milolii.
Their conflicting views reflect what has been a decades-long, contentious debate throughout the islands, one that has become as polarized as the national political discourse.
The tensions are evident even in a community that traces its very existence to fishing.
“It’s very hard,” Milolii resident Kaimi Kaupiko, Willy Kaupiko’s son, said of the opposing camps. “If we see each other, we talk about other stuff.”
Year after year, industry opponents have pushed bills at the Legislature to end or severely curtail the commercial collecting of aquarium fish in the islands.
With only 50 fish collectors licensed by the state last year and estimated employment totaling less than 300, the size of the industry belies the stakes involved. By some counts, Hawaii historically has been the third largest supplier of saltwater aquarium fish in the world.
In 2017, legislators were told that at least 3.5 times more fish were taken from West Hawaii than from the entire Great Barrier Reef, which covers an area 21 times greater than the state’s entire land mass.
The stakes were high enough that the oldest marine aquarium conference in North America devoted part of its annual meeting last year to what was happening in Hawaii, encouraging aquarium owners to become more active in touting the hobby’s benefits.
If opponents are successful in closing the Hawaii industry, the Las Vegas conference attendees were warned, similar efforts could spread to other places and fisheries.
Trade opponents say removing marine life contributes to the degradation of Hawaii’s reef ecosystem, reduces important fish populations, benefits mainly out-of-state aquarium owners and is cruel to the animals. With all the other forces adversely affecting the reefs, including climate change, aquarium collecting is at least one the state can control, they say.
Trade supporters counter with their own points. They say the fishery creates jobs, is done sustainably and responsibly, provides health and education benefits to aquarium owners and has a negligible impact on Hawaii reefs. Fishers typically target juvenile fish, which have low odds of surviving to adulthood in the wild, they add.
So far, the supporters have won the day — even though the public in recent years has favored closing the industry, judging from legislative testimony and poll results.
Just two years ago, the Legislature easily passed a measure that would have prohibited the state from issuing new permits for commercial collection using fine-mesh nets, the primary tool of the trade. Individuals who submitted written testimony overwhelmingly supported the bill, which the Senate passed by a 25-0 vote. The House adopted it by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
But Gov. David Ige, after receiving thousands of calls and emails, vetoed the bill, saying the science didn’t support claims made in the legislation.
Stung by Ige’s veto, trade opponents are stressing cultural factors rather than scientific ones to try to persuade legislators this session to prohibit commercial collecting — regardless of the method used.
Senate Bill 931, which is moving through that chamber, would establish a complete ban effective March 1, 2024. Allowing the trade to continue in a manner that harms marine resources is contrary to traditional Hawaiian practices, according to the bill.
The debate at the Legislature comes at a time when the industry is struggling, especially on Hawaii island, where more than 70 percent of the state’s aquarium harvesting usually occurs.
Until last year, most of the catch happened along the Kona coast, where the state in 1999 designated open and no-take zones to address increasing conflicts in the water. About a third of the coast, including Milolii, was deemed off-limits to the trade.
In January 2018, however, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which regulates the industry, made the entire coast off-limits.
The agency was responding to a September 2017 Hawaii Supreme Court decision that banned the commercial use of fine-mesh nets pending an environmental review. The department also stopped issuing new aquarium permits or renewals pending the review.
The court ruling has had a dramatic impact on reported catches.
Aquarium fishers in 2018 collected about 227,000 fish statewide, half the total from 2016, the last full year before the court order took effect, according to DLNR data.
Skeptics question whether such numbers — based on self-reporting by the industry — are accurate. They cite anecdotal evidence from dive shops, airport cargo offices and elsewhere to suggest that business is still brisk.
But Randy Fernley, owner of Coral Fish Hawaii in Aiea, said his wholesale and retail sales are down at least 25 percent since the court ruling. “It has definitely affected my business,” Fernley said.
The high court in 2017 determined that DLNR failed to follow state law by not gauging potential environmental effects before issuing aquarium permits. The trade subsequently completed environmental assessments for two islands, but DLNR rejected them as insufficient and required the industry to do a more extensive impact study. That evaluation is in the works.
Working as a collector
Whenever a bill about ocean regulations is introduced at the Legislature, Milolii residents take notice. Their lives, after all, are linked to the water.
A few miles off the Big Island’s Mamalahoa Highway, down a steep and winding road, the village consists of about 50 residences, many a stone’s throw from the shoreline. The sound of rolling surf serves as a soothing, steady backdrop for the roughly 250 to 300 people who live here.
The community, a world away from the urban hustle of Honolulu, is not connected to the island’s electrical grid. It has no stores, gas stations or office buildings, making jobs scarce. Some residents drive roughly 40 miles to “town” — Kailua-Kona — for work.
That’s one reason Faavesi supports the trade.
Prior to the court ruling, Faavesi said she earned enough as a collector to support her family, including four children. And she could do the job without a long commute. The boat she worked on launched from Milolii.
But once aquarium fishing along the Kona coast and fine-mesh nets statewide were prohibited, forcing Milolii collectors to go to the other side of the island and use less efficient equipment, her catch dropped so much that Faavesi said she had to get a second job with a coffee tree grower. The commute is about 40 minutes.
Faavesi, whose father also is an aquarium fisher, has no trouble reconciling what she does for a living with her Native Hawaiian roots. She said collecting is a modern form of a traditional gathering practice, and she takes only enough fish to generate income to feed her family and pay her bills.
She also said she is respectful of the resource, recites a prayer before each trip and seeks “permission” from the spiritual guardian of an area before she and her fellow divers start collecting. “We’re gatherers of the sea.”
An aquarium fisher for the past four years, Faavesi doesn’t mask her resentment toward those trying to end the trade. “You’re not trying to stop the collecting of fish,” she said. “To me, it’s like you’re trying to take away something that’s my birthright. I have every right to gather from this ocean.”
Money fosters ‘greed’
Willy Kaupiko likewise doesn’t hide his resentment. But it’s directed at the trade.
He blames the industry for ruining fishing spots once teeming with marine life. Divers in the past restricted the amount they caught, what they caught and how frequently they would return to a spot, knowing that was the key to maintaining the vibrancy of the reef environment, according to Kaupiko. He said collectors today have lost their way, blinded by dollars.
“If their kupunas was here, they would get slapped in the head,” Kaupiko said. “When money is involved, that’s where you get greed.”
Kaupiko dismisses state data that show the West Hawaii fishery is sustainable.
Over nearly the past 20 years, DLNR has conducted thousands of fish surveys along the coast. The data show the aquarium fishery is operating at a level that “does not indicate significant population declines or major shifts in species diversity in areas where collecting is occurring,” DLNR said in testimony to the Legislature in 2017.
The data showed that the population of yellow tang — the most commonly caught aquarium fish in Hawaii by far — increased nearly 65 percent in the closed areas while its abundance in the open areas “has not declined significantly,” according to DLNR. Overall, yellow tang abundance in the 30-foot to 60-foot depth range along the entire coast increased 58 percent, according to the department.
Trade supporters and scientists frequently cite DLNR’s data to describe the fishery as sustainable. What’s more, they say, West Hawaii is one of the most successfully managed and regulated fisheries in the world, crediting DLNR.
And they point to other factors — climate change, coastal pollution, overfishing of food fish — as being far more harmful to Hawaii reefs.
“No one (who) is fighting to shut down the fishery has any interest in facts,” Michael Domeier, president of the Marine Conservation Science Institute in Kailua-Kona said in a email. “All of the science that exists for the HI aquarium fishery shows that it is the most sustainable fishery in the state.”
Alika Peleholani Garcia, a Native Hawaiian collector, agreed. “The question should be is it sustainable or not,” he said. “In this case, science has proved time and time again that it is.”
Questioning the data
Kaupiko disputed the notion that the fishery is sustainable.
He said he doesn’t need scientists to explain what he sees every time he ventures into his depleted garden. “I’m in the water. How do you say the fishery is sustainable?”
Rene Umburger, who runs For the Fishes, a Maui nonprofit dedicated to enhancing protections for coral reef wildlife, likewise questions the sustainability finding.
Such a conclusion should be based on a comparison between aquarium fish populations in the open and no-take areas, with the latter reflecting the natural abundance of the fish free from collecting pressures, according to Umberger.
DLNR data show that yellow tang are substantially less abundant in the West Hawaii open areas than in the closed ones.
“Any activity that causes a drastic decline in abundance cannot be considered sustainable because the original level has not, in fact, been sustained,” Umberger said.
Inga Gibson, a consultant who has lobbied for bills to end the trade, said the no-take zones from 1999 were a good start.
“We absolutely agree that was a tremendous accomplishment,” Gibson said. “That doesn’t mean you stop there.”
She, Umberger and other trade opponents aren’t stopping there. They are pursuing initiatives even beyond the legislative arena and have made some gains.
Among other things, they recently partnered with DLNR to establish a hotline for reporting poaching and other violations. They also persuaded eBay to discontinue allowing its online platform to be used to sell Hawaii marine life for aquarium purposes.
Their ultimate goal, though, is ending commercial collecting in Hawaii.
“What this industry represents isn’t pono,” said Mike Nakachi, a Native Hawaiian fisher, diver and business owner from the Big Island. “You’re taking Hawaii resources and exporting them to the highest bidder.”