Minding Nemo: The Tropical Fish Fight


You know Nemo, right? That cute little orange and white clownfish that starred in that Disney/Pixar movie? Well, he’s in the heart of a brewing controversy…

A recent story about an underwater skirmish between a tropical fish collector and a conservationist has brought to the forefront a battle that, until now, seems to have been flying under the radar. I covered the incident on this blog, at the time unaware of the details behind the case. In a nutshell, the conservationist was taking video of the fish collectors, and when one of the collectors saw he was being filmed, he charged the conservationist and tore off her breathing apparatus (called a regulator). It was a serious crime, one that netted the collector a “terroristic threatening” charge. But more than that, it highlighted the fight between those who want the tropical fish to remain in their own habitats and those who make their living selling them to aquarium owners.

Hawaii is ground zero in this debate, because that is the tropical fish capital of the US. It appears as if collectors have been taking reef fish from the local waters for years with no real regulation in place. Local fishermen are telling tales of seeing no more colorful bait fish in the bellies of the larger predator fish. Locals are bemoaning the impact on the ecology as well as the economy. Tourism is the number one moneymaker in Hawaii, and if there are no tropical fish for snorkelers and divers to see, tourism will take a big hit.

For this reason, Hawaii residents, in overwhelming numbers, want the practice of collecting fish for saltwater aquariums banned completely. This, of course, is fueling a battle between collectors and the public in general.

Those who want the fish to remain in the ocean cite environmental as well as cultural reasons for their stance. A biologically diverse ocean is a healthy ocean, and those who support the ban say that when a fish is taken from the ocean, then it is lost forever. Whereas if it is left in its own habitat, then it can be viewed and enjoyed by thousands of people over the course of its lifetime. The heritage of the islands is also at stake. The waters of Hawaii are home to countless tropical fish, and their loss would be a blow to the culture of everyone who lives there. Most of all, islanders are wary of some of the harmful practices fish collectors employ in order to catch their prizes. Cyanide is sometimes used as a means to slow down the fish so they are more easily caught. Predictably, this has numerous ill effects on the environment, and it causes the fish to live shortened lifespans as well. Reefs are another important factor in the argument. Reef systems are complex and require biodiversity to thrive and the loss of too many fish could alter the delicate balance in detrimental ways.

However, like all issues, this one has another side, the side of the fish collectors and their right to make a living. As an outside observer, it appears as if the fish collectors are being vilified and singled out. The actions of one bad fish collector are being used as an example to throw a blanket indictment over the rest. After all, if we, the American consumer, didn’t demand those pretty little fishies for our aquariums, then this wouldn’t be an issue. Supply and demand. That’s the basic market force they are working within.

Another argument offered by the fish collectors is what they call a hypocritical stance by those in favor of a ban. They say it is inconsistent to want a ban on the collection of exotic fish from Hawaii’s waters while at the same time ignore the fishing that goes on from the shores and the open sea. They say that commercial and recreational fishing removes vastly more fish than they do, and for conservationists to turn their backs on that fact is nothing short of a double standard.

Whatever side of this controversy you may stand, it is uncertain what the future holds. Though a majority of the citizens of Hawaii want the practice of collecting tropical fish for aquariums banned, no official plans have been put into place for such action. Similar prohibitions have been discussed around the world, but to date it looks as if none have actually been established.

What do you think? Should the collection of tropical reef fish be banned? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.

Sources: westhawaiitoday.com | conservationhawaii.org | oceans.com.au | techtimes.com | hawaiitribune-herald.com | nationalgeographic.com

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