New Anti-Aquarium Bills Come Before Legislature in Hawaii

28 Jan, 2016


Achilles Tang, Acanthurus achilles, a popular export species shown in a vintage illustration from a collection of Hawaiian reef fishes by A.H. Baldwin.

Achilles Tang, Acanthurus achilles, a popular export species shown in a vintage illustration from a collection of Hawaiian reef fishes by A.H. Baldwin, circa 1903.

“What happens in Hawaii may not stay in Hawaii….”
—Observer of anti-aquarium politics in the 50th State

Editor: For an aquarium fish collector, the annual start of the Legislative session in the Hawaiian Islands must seem akin to the opening of hunting season for a deer that has seen it all before and somehow survived. CORAL’s Ret Talbot is watching the start of the 2016 Session in Hawaii and reports that the Aquarium (AQ) Fishery is once again in the crosshairs of opponents to the collection of livestock for the marine aquarium trade.

Special to CORAL Magazine

The Hawaii State legislative session has become a much-anticipated event in the marine aquarium trade and hobby. While it may not garner the same enthusiasm as MACNA or Reefapalooza, the aquarium trade related debates that occur in the Hawaii Legislature may be seen as a proxy for the larger debate over the harvest, trade and keeping of saltwater aquarium fishes.

Hawaii is, in many ways, the chosen battleground for some of the most engaged and vocal anti-aquarium-trade activists advancing arguments ranging from fishery sustainability to animal welfare. Each year a number of bills are introduced to the Legislature that represent the spectrum of allegations levied against marine aquarium fisheries and the trade worldwide.

This year’s legislative session opened on January 20th, and as of January 27th, which was the cutoff date to introduce new bills, there are nine aquarium industry-related measures. Of the nine bills, only two are newly introduced. The others are carried over from last year because the Hawaii Legislature operates on a two-year term (biennium) that begins in an odd-numbered year and ends in an even-numbered year. Of the nine bills, two would close the aquarium fishery if passed.

New Life for an Old Bill?

Both of the new aquarium related bills were introduced last week in the House, and the one trade observers are watching most closely is House Bill 2022. “HB 2022 – Relating to Aquatic Life” would establish an “aquatic life conservation program” in the Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) “to implement conservation measures…to regulate the collection of fish and other aquatic life for aquarium purposes.”

This is a long way from the Bill’s antecedent—HB 873, which was introduced last year and sought to make it “unlawful for any person at any time to knowingly or intentionally sell or offer to sell, for aquarium purposes, aquatic life taken from any of the waters within the jurisdiction of the State.”

HB 873, which was the House version of Senate Bill 322, included a lengthy preamble about the marine aquarium trade and its effects on Hawaii’s reefs. The Bill’s original preamble laid out a series of largely familiar arguments supported by mostly unsourced data. Among other allegations, the original preamble to HB 873 stated that the aquarium fishery “threatens Hawaii’s reef environments and the socioeconomic benefits they provide.” It alleged the aquarium industry “has operated for over fifty years with no limits on the volume of take and no limits on the number of permits.” As a result, the Bill claimed that “species targeted by the industry are three to ten times more abundant in areas protected from aquarium-collecting than in areas where the industry operates.” It further claimed that the aquarium fishery has devastated stocks of iconic Yellow Tang (Zebrasoma flavescens), claiming their population is “depleted in many areas, decreasing by seventy to ninety per cent.”

Replica of vintage Hawaiian post card from

Replica of vintage Hawaiian post card from

When HB 873 was heard by the Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources & Hawaiian Affairs last February, the Bill was seriously revised based primarily on testimony from the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and others regarding fisheries management as well as data that show fishery sustainability. According to the Committee Chair, over 1000 pieces of testimony were submitted, with 590 in opposition and 537 in favor. The Bill eventually passed out of committee but with significant amendments. Instead of shutting down the fishery, the new House Draft 1 (HD 1) of HB 873 aimed to better manage it.

Amongst the opponents of HB 873 HD 1 was the State’s own Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). If the Bill were to pass, DLNR would be the state agency charged with implementation, but the creation of “an aquarium fish conservation program” within DLNR would require funding that does not exist. Carty Chang, interim DLNR Chairperson, also said the creation of such a program was unnecessary, as extensive survey data on the status of reef fishes in the State’s largest aquarium fishery show sustainability. “These data,” said Chang, “indicate that the aquarium fishery is currently operating at a level that does not indicate significant population declines and major shifts in species diversity in areas where collecting is occurring.”

The revised Bill was then referred to the House Committee on Judiciary, where it failed to progress by the end of the legislative session last May. As such, HB 873 HD 1 has been carried over to this year’s session in its amended form, but it’s unlikely it will progress with last week’s introduction of HB 2022. The new Bill is identical to HB 873 HD 1 and will likely also be opposed by DLNR. The advantage to re-introducing the measure as HB 2022 is it may get another hearing before the Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources & Hawaiian Affairs. Another hearing would allow legislators to revise the Bill further, something both supporters and opponents of HB 873 HD 1 said was necessary.

Endangered Species?

The second new bill that could affect Hawaii’s aquarium fishery and trade is “HB 2025 – Relating to Marine Species.” This bill does not directly target the aquarium fishery or trade, but the language of the Bill makes it clear that the aquarium fishery is broadly a focus. Section 1 of the Bill states:

The legislature finds that Hawaii’s coral reefs are home to a wide variety of marine species, many of which are endemic to Hawaii. The marine species of Hawaii play an important role for the State’s inhabitants, providing residents and visitors physical, cultural, environmental, and spiritual sustenance. This need for local marine species can go so far as to remove them from their natural habitats to be used for such purposes as being processed for food or sold as pets. As interest in the marine species of Hawaii increases, the number of species being removed from their native coral reefs increases as well. If the take levels increase, the marine species found in the coral reefs of Hawaii will become more vulnerable to extinction, which could potentially harm the local environment and people of Hawaii.

Endangered Species Act (ESA) petitions targeting saltwater aquarium species at the Federal level have seen a strong uptick in recent years with several prominent marine aquarium species petitioned. Just this month, the first marine aquarium fish was listed under the ESA. While unrelated to the ESA, the measure may find favor with those interested in using an endangered species argument to regulate trade. HB 2025 would establish a “marine species task force” charged with identifying “ten vital marine species vulnerable to extinction if take levels of those species increases.” The task force would then be charged with recommending actions “to ensure the sustainability of those species.”

It’s unclear from the language of the Bill exactly what the criteria would be for determining “the ten most vital marine species to Hawaii’s reef ecosystems that would be vulnerable to extinction if the take level of those species increases,” but it’s not inconceivable to imagine one or more aquarium fish, especially an herbivore, making the list. With recent news of bleaching events and other stressors to coral reefs in Hawaii, the importance of herbivorous fishes—like tangs—in keeping algae in check is more on people’s minds than ever. Given the way the Bill is written, a species with data showing sustainability based on current take could still make the list even if there is no evidence that animal is currently at risk of extinction.

Yellow Tang illustration from vintage collection of Hawaiian reef fishes: the islands' leading export to the marine aquarium trade.

Yellow Tang illustration from vintage collection of Hawaiian reef fishes, circa 1903: the islands’ leading export to the marine aquarium trade.

HB 2025 states that, if passed, the task force will submit an initial report on its findings to the Legislature prior to the convening of the 2017 Legislative session. A final report and recommendations, “including any proposed legislation,” are to be submitted no later than twenty days prior to the convening of the regular session of 2018. The language of the Bill charges the task force to “examine empirical and scientific data compiled by credible academic and scientific sources” and to “consult with persons and groups who have expertise in marine wildlife found in reef ecosystems.” Hopefully the process would be data-centered, but once a recommendation makes its way to the Legislature, it undoubtedly has the potential to become very political. As such, aquarists and others interested in Hawaii’s aquarium fishery will want to watch the progress of this bill.

The Ban Bills

In addition to these two new bills (HB 2022 and 2025), there are seven bills carried over from last year that have the potential to still move forward in this legislative session. With HB 873 amended to no longer be a ban bill, HB 606 and SB 322 are the only bills in the Legislature this year that would close the aquarium fishery if either became law.

“HB 606 – Related to Fishing Rights” would establish a 10-year moratorium on the taking of aquarium fishes and provide assistance, training, and related employment services to workers dislocated by the moratorium. The Bill was heard in the Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources & Hawaiian Affairs in mid-February 2015, and the Committee recommended the measure be deferred. HD 606 was automatically carried over to this year’s legislative session. For more analysis of HB 606, click here.

As stated above “SB 322 – Relating to Wildlife” is the Senate version of the original HB 873, but SB 322 remains a ban bill and would criminalize the sale of aquatic life for aquarium use. Advocates of this bill contend the aquarium fishery in Hawaii is unsustainable, while its opponents point to the State’s own data showing fishery sustainability. Referred to committee last year, SB 322 failed to receive a hearing. As such, the Bill was automatically carried over to the 2016 regular session, and last week it was re-referred jointly to the newly created Committee on Water, Land and Agriculture/Committee on Judiciary and Labor and the Committee on Ways and Means.

The Other Bills Automatically Carried Over

The other Senate bill, “SB 1340 – Relating to Aquarium Fish,” would prohibit the sale (or offering for sale) of any “aquatic life taken under an aquarium fish permit subjected to substantial injury or cruel treatment.” Substantial injury is defined in the Bill as “bodily injury that creates a substantial risk of death or that causes serious, permanent disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.” Cruel treatment is defined as “behavior that may result in substantial injury to the aquarium fish or aquatic life, including but not limited to: 1) Surfacing at a rate resulting in physical damage to the body tissue; 2) Piercing or deflating the swim bladder; 3) Cutting the fin or spine; 4) Withholding food for more than twenty-four hours; or 5) Holding fish or aquatic life in less than one gallon of water, per each specimen, within any container.”

If all the practices defined as substantial injury or cruel treatment in this bill were to become illegal, it would likely have a significant effect on the State’s aquarium fishery and trade. Many of these practices are widely accepted, and the data show they may actually be in the best interest of the animal’s health and well being according to organizations such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. For more analysis on the Bill, see “The Data behind Defining ‘Cruel Treatment’ & ‘Substantial Injury’ in Aquarium Fisheries.”

“HB 483 (HD1 SD1) – Relating to Ocean Resources” would authorize administrative inspections upon certain conditions within the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area (WHRFMA). The WHRFMA represents about 70% of the overall Hawaii aquarium harvest. Advocates of HB 483 maintain that catch inspection is not authorized in Hawaii without probable cause, and this makes enforcement of existing regulations a challenge. Critics say the Bill is redundant with current law and could create issues when penalties are assigned. Some also maintain it is unconstitutional. HB 483 was the only aquarium-related bill to pass out of committee and cross over from House to Senate last year. HB 483 HD 1 passed out of its first Senate committee in late March, but failed to pass out of the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor. Automatically carried over to this session, HD 483 was re-referred to WLA and the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor last week.

“HB 511 – Related to Harassment” would prohibit “the purposeful harassment with the intent to prevent the taking fish of persons who are fishing.” The measure stems from an underwater confrontation between an aquarium fisherman and divers acting in association with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. It passed out of the Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources & Hawaiian Affairs with amendments in mid-February and was then referred to the Committee on Judiciary, where it remained without a hearing until the session closed. As such, it has been automatically carried over to the 2016 legislative session. For more on the HB 511, click here.

“HB 883 – Related to Aquarium Fish” is the companion bill to SB 1340 and would, like its Senate counterpart, “prohibit the selling or offering for sale any fish or aquatic life taken under an aquarium fish permit subjected to substantial injury or cruel treatment.” HB 883 was heard in the Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources & Hawaiian Affairs last year, and the Committee recommended that the measure be deferred. It was automatically carried over to this year’s legislative session. For more analysis on the Bill, see “The Data behind Defining ‘Cruel Treatment’ & ‘Substantial Injury’ in Aquarium Fisheries.”

Next Steps

CORAL Magazine will be following the legislative session and will provide updates here as aquarium-related bills progress. In the event of hearings, CORAL will post relevant information so that interested parties may submit testimony. As more than one individual at the federal level has stated, “What happens in Hawaii may not stay in Hawaii,” and so all those with an interest in the hobby and trade should make sure to stay abreast of ongoing developments.

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About the author

Avatar photo
Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is an award-winning writer and photojournalist who writes frequently on sustainability issues. He lives with his wife, artist Karen Talbot, in Rockland, Maine.


  1. February 05, 2016

    Maybe it’s time to have a bill written that protects the right of the aquarium fish collectors to be able to do their job as they have done so for years. We always seem to be on the defensive against the animal right groups who want to stop any pet or fish ownership and their unjust and biased bill that are not based on any real facts. I think it’s time to start bills that protect our rights to sell pets and fish and our right to collect those when done responsibly and has proven sustainability as it does in this case with the Hawaiian aquarium fish industry.

  2. February 05, 2016

    This whole idea is getting ridiculous! There are several SCIENTIFIC studies done that PROVE that properly collecting fish and other animals for the aquarium industry DO NOT HARM the reef. Obviously there is a group of people with an agenda…

  3. Ed
    February 06, 2016

    I’ll admit that I love our hobby as much as anyone else! However, there are times that I cruise the isles of the local fish store that unfortunately most of the livestock in the tanks will meet a fairly quick demise from improper care,handling,stress,or lack of proper aquarium space for the type of fish. My wife continually tells me (especially after snorkeling in Hawaii) that certain fish in the store are only meant to live in the ocean. I can’t help but agree with her in so many cases. Anyone in this hobby must admit that there are just certain fish that are collected from the wild just because they are so gorgeous that they will sell easily,and usually to someone that has no right to own or care for this particular specimen. Going forward I choose to own fish that can only be raise in captivity or are at least proven aquarium survivors. I feel that the laws should support capture for research in breeding these beautiful creatures so our hobby can continue for many more generations. My passion for these animals is far greater for their survival than it is for my aquarium. Share a frag and breed a clown!

    • Leo
      February 06, 2016

      I completely agree with you Ed. I take care of my fish and never house them in a tank that is too small or an environment where they will be stressed. it is unfortunate but a lot of people look at fish as expendable. They do not see them on the same level as say a cat or a dog, I do. There are laws for the improper treatment and or housing for cats and dogs and I believe there should be laws for fish as well. It would just be too hard to enforce since tanks are in the house and no way to actually enforce any laws. I do not know how many times I have been on forums and people post pictures showing off their tanks and they will have a 20 gallon or 40 gallon tank with a yellow tang, hippo tang etc… You tell them that it is not large enough and inhumane and they do not care. They only care that their tank looks the way they want it to and to heck with the well being of the fish. People like this should get fined and somehow banned from owning future fish. There are also those impatient people who do not properly cycle the tank and throw a bunch of fish in right away. Then when they die they don’t care they just continue to by more and more replacements. Heck, I even saw this on one of those dumb aquarium shows on Discovery or Nat Geo…. one of those networks. The customers fish kept dying so he just kept buying more to replace the dead fish and never resolved the underlying issue. Of course they go to his house and setup a whole new tank, do not cycle it, and put about 20 fish in it the same day it is setup.

  4. July 03, 2017

    Some one should tell snorkel Bob to stop is snorkel tours his gas and oil and exust harms fish as well. This guy bin the thorn in all these hearings. Get a life Bob they have done the fish counts and say they are more fish now then ten years ago.

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