WAILUKU - Maui County may significantly tighten up rules regarding how aquarium fish are treated once the ornamental fish are caught and before they reach pet stores worldwide.
A bill introduced Tuesday by Council Member Mike Molina would piggyback on superseding state laws, which animal rights and reef experts argue are too weak. The measure is intended to help mitigate Hawaii's evaporating reefs and fish populations and treat the animals more humanely. It does not pertain to game fish.
Molina said even though the bill will not lessen the number of fish taken, it will raise awareness about overfishing and the fragility of Hawaii's reefs.
The bill would give Maui island animal control officers the authority to ensure that aquarium fish essentially are put on legal par with other pets, such as dogs and cats. It would prohibit aquarium fish harvesters from harming or killing the fish, whether they intend to or not.
Existing law states that aquarium fish collectors must maintain facilities that can keep the fish alive and "in reasonable health."
However, the need for Maui County Code regulations is clear, Molina said. Over the past 20 years, Hawaii's aquarium reef fish population has declined by 59 percent.
"The reality is that the inhumane treatment is inherent in the trade," said environmentalist and dive operator Renee Umberger. "They don't consider them to really be animals. That's why it's important to change the (legal) definition of what the state considers pets."
What impact the law would have is unknown. Critics of the industry said it is lightly regulated by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Aquatic Resources.
According to DLNR statistics, last year a half-dozen Maui fishermen used net traps to catch 12,129 aquarium fish valued at $32,478. Statewide, almost one million fish were sold for nearly $2 million.
But Umberger said DLNR officials were told in meetings this year that the number of fish captured is greatly underreported, by as much as 10 times.
The commercial capture, handling and transportation of aquarium fish leaves the industry with a 99 percent mortality rate within a year of capture, Umberger said. She called it "the disposable pet trade."
Industry officials have said the mortality rate is as low as zero.
Robert Wintner, owner of the local Snorkel Bob's chain, questions why Hawaii would not only put at risk its reef fish population for $2 million a year, but also the multimillions of dollars and hundreds of jobs provided by scuba and tour companies.
Wintner said he and a like-minded group of others spent the past year developing the county ordinance after repeatedly being rebuffed at both the Legislature and Gov. Linda Lingle's office for legal reforms.
In September, the County Council banned shark tours in Maui County waters, although none currently exist. The ordinance prohibits any business that charges customers to enter the ocean to feed or attract sharks for viewing.
But Umberger said lax laws prevented those advocating more regulation of taking aquarium fish because, unlike shark tours, the state already has aquarium fish statutes on the books.
"For $50, just about anyone can get a DLNR aquarium permit to empty any reef you want in Hawaii, except in an marine-protected area," Wintner said.
And if it's a question of the county or state not having the money for enforcement, Wintner promised to come up with the cash to pay for 24-hour surveillance of Maui's near-shore waters for aquarium fish violators and poachers.
DNLR Division of Aquatic Resources Administrator Dan Polhemus did not return a call this week seeking comment. A member of Maui's aquarium fish industry declined to comment for this story.
Molina's bill would do the following to require the humane treatment of aquarium fish:
* Prohibit many industry practices, including withholding food for more than 12 hours; deflating the swim bladder; trimming the spine or fins; exposure to air; and temperature changes of more than 2 degrees.
* Include causing the death of fish as being an inhumane treatment of aquatic life.
* Require documentation of mortality rates and disposal methods of dead fish.
* Provide that violations would be a misdemeanor with a fine between $500 and $2,000 and up to a year in jail.
Molina's aquarium fish bill still needs to be assigned to a committee for further discussion before it goes before the full County Council.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at email@example.com.