Getty images

Rene Umberger has been fighting to shut down Hawaii’s commercial aquarium industry for years. As a former dive instructor, she’s seen with her own eyes the impacts the trade has had on near-shore reefs.

“I knew that I had to do something,” she said.

In September, Umberger, founder of the nonprofit For the Fishes, made some progress, when the Hawaii High Court issued an injunction on the state’s commercial aquarium trade until the state determines whether the practice is in compliance with the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act. In Hawaii, commercial permits for aquarium fish collection allow collectors to take unlimited fish from the reefs, while recreational collection permits allow collectors to take up to 2,000 fish per permit. The nonprofit Earthjustice brought the case against the state in 2012, with Umberger, three other people, and three nonprofits serving as plaintiffs.


The court ruling is the latest news in a fight against Hawaii’s aquarium industry that’s spanned over a decade. And this year has been a big one for anti-aquarium trade conservationists like Umberger. In addition to the court ruling, over the summer, Hawaii’s legislature passed a bill banning aquarium fish collection—a bill that Umberger has fought to have passed since 2008. The governor, however, vetoed the bill, saying he wanted to wait until more research was done on the aquarium trade in Hawaii before a ban was considered.

“Almost every year we have bills at the state legislature,” Umberger said. “They fail because of lack of political will, every single time. “We came closer this year than we ever have before.”

Umberger’s fight is centered in Hawaii, but the aquarium trade is a global phenomenon—one that can have significant impacts on fish populations and the health of reef ecosystems. Most of the fish captured in the aquarium trade are shipped around the world to be sold in pet stores to saltwater aquarium owners. These saltwater aquariums are generally more expensive and require more upkeep than a freshwater aquariums that your common goldfish and betta fish call home, but as the saltwater aquarium industry evolves, it’s becoming easier for fish hobbyists to start their own marine tanks.


The Philippines and Indonesia are major hotspots for the aquarium trade—as of 2013, the two countries accounted for 85 percent of the global supply of aquarium fish, with the United States being the top importer, followed by Europe. Research estimates that about 11 million reef fish are imported into the United States each year, a number that comprises 1,802 species. Corals and other reef creatures are also targeted: Over 150 species of stony corals and “hundreds of species of non-coral invertebrates” are collected for the aquarium trade around the world, according to a 2012 study.

Saltwater tanks of fish for sale are shown at Dallas North Aquarium in Dallas, Texas earlier this year. (Benny Snyder/AP Photo)

Both the Philippines and Indonesia also have a problem with cyanide usage among fish collectors. These collectors will spray cyanide over reef fish in order to stun them and make them easier to capture. The practice can cause the captured fish to die weeks after being caught, and can also bleach and even kill corals and other marine organisms—such as Christmas tree worms, lobsters, and shrimp—that get caught in the plume. This practice is illegal in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka, but the aquarium trade suffers from poor oversight in these regions. A 2016 report by the Center for Biological Diversity and For the Fishes found that six million tropical fish imported by the U.S. each year are exposed to cyanide.


“Those are huge countries that, I think they try, but they just don’t have the governance that we have,” Brian Tissot, professor and director of the marine laboratory at Humboldt State University, told Earther. “I think they’re improving, but very slowly.”

Hawaii, thankfully, does not have a problem with cyanide poisoning. And Hawaii also has more scientific data on its aquarium trade and how it impacts the reef environment than many other regions, thanks largely to Tissot’s work. Tissot and his team did a study on Hawaii’s aquarium industry in 2003, and found that the collection did impact fish numbers: Seven out of 10 of the fish they surveyed were “significantly reduced” by the aquarium collection, with fish numbers ranging from 38 percent lower to 75 percent lower in regions where they were collected compared to regions where they weren’t. Brightly colored yellow tangs were the fish that were most heavily targeted at the time. Coral, however, weren’t being harmed by the collectors: The study found no major differences in coral damage or algae growth—which can suffocate coral when there aren’t enough herbivorous fish to eat it—between collection and non-collection sites.


These findings, Tissot said, had consequences. They helped push the region of West Hawaii to create marine protected areas that prohibited aquarium collection. Generally, West Hawaii’s management of its aquarium fishery has been effective, Tissot said: Fish numbers aren’t going down—if anything, they’re going up—and the reef isn’t being damaged.

“The problem with Hawaii is the rest of the state is not like that,” he said. “Oahu has a large fishery, and it’s not managed well at all. So if improvement needs to be made, that’s where I think a lot of efforts need to be focused.”

Banning the aquarium trade altogether may not be the only way to sustainably manage coral reefs. In fact, Tissot says he’s generally opposed efforts to completely ban the trade in Hawaii, because those fighting for the ban don’t always do so in a scientifically accurate way.


“What they typically do is use scientific information, if they use it at all, in a misleading and erroneous way,” he said. “Regardless of the position of what they’re trying to do, I’ve always advocated...that I support the data.”

Tissot and Umberger agree that one of the few regions that has a well-managed, sustainable aquarium trade is the Great Barrier Reef. Rather than banning the practice outright, Tissot said the rest of the world can learn from Australia’s tactics—and the tactics of West Hawaii—to improve their own aquarium fisheries. In many parts of the world, including the Philippines, aquarium fish collection is driven by poverty, and some scientists say a well-monitored aquarium trade that incorporates economic incentives for local collectors to conserve fish could help both reefs and the fish collectors themselves.


“Rather than destroying the reef, the marine aquarium trade could play a role in saving it, a role totally out of proportion to its size, and even out of proportion to its potential to do harm,” researchers argued in 2014.

Regardless of whether these regions improve their management of the aquarium trade, consumers have a role to play. For the Fishes developed an app called Tank Watch, which educates saltwater aquarium enthusiasts on which fish can be raised in captivity and which are typically caught from the wild.


“The idea is to try and teach hobbyists to, if they want to have a saltwater aquarium, choose a captive-bred animal that has been shown to be able to survive and thrive in captivity—meaning they are able to breed in captivity, and they are able to live longer in captivity than they would in the wild,” Umberger said.

Clownfish, the orange and white, anemone-dwelling creatures made famous by Finding Nemo, are one of the few reef fish that have been successfully bred in captivity for decades. Every year, CORAL Magazine publishes a list of the other fish that bred in captivity, but it’s fairly short: This year, the magazine identified 330 species that had been bred in captivity, but just 26 of those were commonly available to consumers.

In Hawaii, Umberger is going to keep working to shut down the aquarium industry. Right now, she’s working with the governor and his administration to try to come to an agreement on the aquarium trade, which could establish some middle ground like grandfathering in certain collectors. Tissot, meanwhile, hopes the court decision spurs the rest of the state to better manage its aquarium industry.


“This recent permit stoppage, a lot of people are hailing it as this huge victory,” he said. “The reality is, what it’s going to do—which is actually good—is it’s going to force the Division of Aquatic Resources to start thinking about managing everything statewide.”

Either outcome will be good news for Hawaii’s reef fish.