updated 10/10/2005 9:33:54 AM ET 2005-10-10T13:33:54

After 2 1/2 hours out on the ocean, Randy Fernley returns to dock with six deep plastic bins filled with tropical fish destined for home aquariums.

Fernley keeps a list of about 400 sites where he collects the sleek, jewel-like beauties to make sure he doesn’t hit a particular one too often. That ensures the waters he depends on for his livelihood are not overfished — but it’s not something the state requires.

“I’m into protecting the reef because I know that’s my life. And I need to have that reef around the rest of my life,” said Fernley, owner of Coral Fish Hawaii in the town of Aiea.

While the islands are valued the world over for their spectacular coastlines and aquamarine waters, the industry of harvesting fish and other marine creatures for home aquariums is largely unregulated here, raising concerns over damage to the environment, the tourism industry and the aquarium fishery itself.

With the notable exception of a five-year-old regulation project along the Big Island’s Kona Coast, a $50 permit allows collectors across most of Hawaii to net as many of a species as they want, wherever they want and whenever they want. That sometimes means harvesting hundreds of thousands per year of a single species from a single bay.

The situation doesn’t sit well with a number of marine biologists, who worry that removing plant-eating fish from near-shore reefs already threatened by urban runoff could lead to an overgrowth of algae.

Fernley also said he is concerned that short-term collectors not counting on next year’s catch may be to blame for damaging fragile coral colonies in Kaneohe Bay in their search for fish.

Not ‘as pretty anymore’
Among the most unhappy are dive shop owners whose tourist clientele are the lifeblood of the state’s economy.

“It just doesn’t look as pretty anymore as it used to,” said Brian Tissot, a professor of environmental science at Washington State University.

Robert Wintner, owner of the dive shop Snorkel Bob’s, which operates trips throughout the main islands, said Hawaii’s reefs are being strip mined by aquarium collectors.

“There’s no place else in America that has what we have. And you know the cookie jar is wide open and the bad kids are robbing it,” he said.

According to state figures, collectors brought in 557,673 marine creatures during the 2004 fiscal year with a reported value of $1.08 million. But state officials believe those figures to be three to five times below the industry’s true worth in Hawaii, which is the nation’s biggest aquarium species exporter.

While aquarium fishermen have been required since the 1970s to submit monthly catch reports, many don’t.

Forty-seven percent of the reports required of collectors working in the islands’ biggest collections area, along the west coast of the Big Island, went unfilled between January 1998 and July 2003, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Better oversight likely
Enforcement of the reporting requirement, however, is likely to be tightened, said Bill Walsh, an aquatic biologist with the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Walsh oversees the West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area, a project that includes the state’s most aggressive rules for managing of the aquarium industry.

On the last day of 1999, a little more than 35 percent of the west coast of the Big Island became off-limits to collectors after a local coalition of residents pushed a collection control measure through the state Legislature.

In December the department told lawmakers that the number of the most collected fish species, the yellow tang, has since gone up 49 percent in both protected and unprotected areas along the coast.

“Even though everybody said, ’Aw, you know, if you ban these areas to us, you’re going to ruin the fishery, we’ll be out of business, there’ll be all these unemployed people’ ... it didn’t happen,” he said.

The project already shows that collecting can coexist with other activities such as tourism, recreation and subsistence fishing. It also demonstrates what can happen to a fishery if the government creates marine protected areas, Walsh said.

Similar regulations are being considered for the state’s other waters. Last month Gov. Linda Lingle signed new rules creating a massive marine refuge in the state waters around the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which stretch 1,200 miles from Kauai.

“I think if you talk to anyone, they would say that the nearshore waters are not in the condition they remember that they used to be,” said Peter Young, chairman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

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