Hawai’i’s Sustainability Success

Fishery employees and the government want to keep fisheries sustainable. If the fish and their wild habitats are not well cared for, there won’t be many fish for anyone to appreciate in the future. Much of Hawai’i is off-limits to fish collection. The state manages Marine Protection Areas and Fish Replenishment Areas where fish collection is not allowed. About 35% of the western Big Island shoreline is a fish replenishment zone by law. (The vast majority of fish collection is in West Hawai’i.) Only about 40 species are approved for collection. Additionally, Hawai’i regulators have studied reef fish populations since 1999. They have conducted over 8,700 observations of fish populations. The results have seen significant increases in fish populations in both protected and collection areas.
Source: Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources
Source: Hawai’i Department of Land and Natural Resources
How do they do it? Here are some specifics.
  • Fish are caught using a lightweight barrier net managed by professional divers to avoid any damage to the reef.
  • Any fish that are inadvertently caught, or are inappropriate size or age, are released.
  • Fish collectors are limited to a specific number of fish for many breeds by Hawai’i law.
  • Fish populations have been carefully monitored since the Hawai’i legislature passed Act 306 in 1998 establishing the West Hawai’i Regional Fishery. In the decades that followed, fish populations have soared in both open and protected areas.
    • A 2020 report by Hawai’i’s Department of Land and Natural Resources found that populations of Yellow Tang increased more in open areas (101%) where aquarium collection is allowed than in Marine protected areas (74%), though both showed population increases. The population of Kole was similarly increasing in open areas (97%), even outpacing the population growth in Fish Replenishment Areas (85%).
    • That same report “found no significant differences in the abundance of adult Yellow Tang” between areas opened and closed to aquarium collection, highlighting the sustainability of the fisheries.
    • The report also concluded that the species richness of the reef has not changed in the past 15 years, showing stability for all types of fish.
  • There have been thousands of surveys conducted by volunteers regularly confirming the sustainability of fish populations. Aquarium fish collection has been insignificant when compared to the population as a whole since the 1970s.
  • Fish collected for aquariums go on to inspire individuals around the world to care about reef sustainability even if they cannot visit one directly.
  • Fish collection is regulated even more than fishing for food. There are many areas where capturing fish alive for aquarium use is illegal, but catching the fish, killing them, and selling them in food markets is legal.