Hawaii reef fish collection rate drops following court ruling on fine mesh nets

HONOLULU (AP) — The number of Hawaii reef fish caught by fishermen with commercial marine licenses for the aquarium trade has fallen by about 80 percent since a state court ruling slowed the industry and stopped the use of fine mesh nets last year.

Licensed fisherman caught nearly 43,500 reef fish in September and about 34,000 in October, but the numbers dropped following the court battles between fish advocates and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported Monday.

The numbers fell to about 11,800 in November following the late October court ruling. The catch numbers then dropped to about 6,700 by June.

For Coral Fish Hawaii, which sells fish and aquariums on Oahu, sales are down at least 50 percent and many fish tanks are empty or sparse. Owner Randy Fernley, who dives once a week to collect reef fish, said it has been more difficult without the use of fine mesh nets.

“There’s no problem with the resource, and there’s very few people doing it,” Fernley said. “There hasn’t been a lot of fish collected on this island, in contrast to what the activists say.”

In June 2017, 38 licensed fishermen reported catching reef fish, according to the state Division of Aquatic Resources.

A 30-day public comment period begins Wednesday on an environmental impact statement about the future of reef fish collecting. A draft environmental assessment was released in April.

Rene Umberger, founder and executive director of For the Fishes, and other advocates slowed commercial aquarium fish collecting after courts agreed with their claim that the impact of the aquarium trade was not properly documented.

Umberger disputes the catch numbers reported to the department. She believes outlaw reef fish collectors continue to use fine mesh nets to supply the aquarium trade on the mainland.

“A limitless number of animals are being allowed to be taken,” Umberger said. “There’s no reason these animals should be depleted for people in North America to keep them alive in a glass box.”