Sea Shepherd and Snorkel Bob Join Forces
by Tom Lang
Hawaii’s Snorkel Bob (aka Robert Wintner) has written a post on the Sea Shepherd blog where he proceeds to blame the collection of reef fishes for the aquarium trade for the decline of Hawaii’s reefs. In his very first paragraph, however, he describes an extremely common non-Hawaiian (and often aquarium-bred) species: “The tentative hobbyist with a ten-gallon tank and one anemone clownfish as seen in Finding Nemo stays in briefly, because anemone clownfish die soon in a small tank.”
I can remember when I began keeping saltwater fish as a teenager in the 1970s that the common clownfish, Amphiprion oscellaris, was easy enough to keep with an undergravel filter and TetraMin flake food. I’m not saying this was the best set-up, but it actually worked. Today, with the advent of nano-reef aquariums complete with live rock, proper lighting and enhanced nutritional options, Nemo has a much better chance not only for survival, but even for spawning, in a tank as small as 10 gallons.
I realize that Snorkel Bob is pointing to the “tentative hobbyist” as the perpetrator of needless fish death. But, while these types certainly exist in the world of marine aquarium keeping, the sheer availability of resources for educating oneself on the basics of the hobby is all the more reason this type of aquarium keeper is becoming more and more rare and marginalized with each passing year.
Online resources such as The Breeder’s Registry and saltwater discussion forums as well as quality books and aquarium magazines give would-be hobbyists all the information necessary to keep saltwater fishes thriving in home aquariums for many years beyond what scientists believed were their natural lifespans just a couple of decades ago.
Wintner then goes on to criticize personal mega-tanks owned by billionaires like Sumner Redstone (ex-chairman, Viacom and CBS) and Michael Dell. Of course, these aquariums are maintained by aquarium professionals utilizing state-of-the-art equipment and expert care and only appear to have more diversity than the natural reefs because they pack in a large number of fish into a small space when compared to the natural reefs. Even though it might appear that such gargantuan tanks (by home aquarium standards) would adversely impact the reefs, such a corollary is utterly foolish when considered on a global basis.
The problem with Snorkel Bob’s and Sea Shepherd’s apparent attempt to connect aquarium fish “hunters” to whaling by association on the Sea Shepherd website is, as everyone who knows the first thing about fish and whales understands, that the reproductive capacities of these animals simply cannot be compared.
Wintner affirms this when he writes: “An aquarium fish dealer on Maui claimed: “Fish are not a finite resource like oil and gold, they are highly reproductive, some releasing millions of eggs multiple times a year. The small fish population has to do with Maui having the wrong type of habitat that certain fish seek out to live in. You go into the desert and you won’t find an alligator.”
So, is habitat destruction – 40 years of unregulated coral and live rock extraction for the aquarium hobby as Snorkel Bob claims – the reason these millions of eggs don’t succeed in repopulating the Hawaiian reefs each year? Or is there something else going on?
Having dived and snorkeled the reefs of Maui regularly myself, I can attest to the alarming decline of the coral and the numbers of fish off the coast of this beautiful island in recent years. The reefs today are smothering with an overabundance of algae and the once-wide beach of Kaanapali (see photo below) has eroded and deposited sand over the coral heads due to rising sea levels. The appearance of vast schools of Yellow Tangs is becoming more and more rare. On these points, Snorkel Bob and I agree. We disagree about why this is occurring.
The very tourists to whom Snorkel Bob has made a fortune selling snorkel equipment have been spurring resort development ajacent to Hawaii’s coral reefs for decades now. Unlike the human impacts of the native Hawaiian fishers who “extracted” more fish from the reefs over hundreds of years than the aquarium hobby ever will, the impacts of modern development are far more devastating to the delicate island ecosystems. Formerly pristine freshwater streams flowing from the volcanic peaks now carry chemicals from terrestrial development ranging from pesticides to fertilizers, motor vehicle fluids to animal waste. The correlation between the exploding numbers of coastal hotels, resorts, condominiums, timeshares and private residences and the decline in reef habitats is impossible to ignore, yet Snorkel Bob doesn’t even mention it. He does not seem to want to lay any blame at the feet of his very best customers.
The perpetually green lawns and non-native gardens of Hawaii’s coastal resorts along with the hoards of sunblock-slathered snorkelers have killed off far more of Hawaii’s precious reef corals and fish than aquarium collectors ever could. It is these intensive human activities rather than fishing that have made many Hawaiian reefs inhospitable to larval and juvenile fish settlement. My view comes from the perspective of decades of studying what conditions marine fish require for successful reproduction. A healthy reef can sustain a vibrant and even aggressive fishery and there are examples thoughout the world that support this.
Now, I’m going to shock some of my marine hobby and industry friends. I actually agree with Snorkel Bob that there needs to be restrictions placed on the numbers of fish being collected in Hawaiian waters. This is not due to any fault of the collectors, but due to the fact that the reproductive capacity of Hawaii’s reefs has been diminished by coastal development and habitat degradation. If the legislature passes such restrictions on fish collection, it must also pass legislation that will give the remaining fish stocks a chance to rebound. This means much tighter restrictions on all new coastal development, restrictions on chemical sunblock, pesticide and fertilizer use throughout the state and increased funding for runoff control and waste water treatment facilities.
If the coral reefs around Hawaii continue to decline, so will Hawaii’s tourism industry. One way for the state to fund the reef-saving initiatives I have outlined above might be to add a tax on snorkel equipment and other water-related recreational toys. I hope Snorkel Bob will join me in saving Hawaii’s coral reefs for future generations, but I’m not holding my breath.
Photo credit: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society