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Hawaii filling world's aquariums
Ancheta Adrienne 
Advertiser Final

Fishermen, dive operators, preservationists
battle over lucrative business


Dennis Yamaguchi's 13-foot Boston Whaler skiff - a joke among his friends for its 30 years of 
antiquity and diminutive size - bobs on a glossy sea under the glaring sun a quarter mile from 
the Haleiwa shore. A sea turtle, nearly a third the length of the boat, surfaces nearby for a gulp 
of air, looks at the boat curiously, then dives back toward the reef 100 feet below.

The reef, after all, is where the action is, and that is where Yamaguchi, 48, is headed with scuba 
gear, a bucket, three small mesh hand nets and a long pliable plastic rod. He gently coaxes his 
prey - such as yellow tang, Potter's angels and longnose butterfly fish - out of their hiding places
and into his 10-inch nets, collecting more than five dozen fish and crustaceans over three hours.

Dead fish have no value in Yamaguchi's business.

His catch on this day will sell for about $300 if it arrives alive, and he'll be left with about a 
$200 profit after deducting his expenses.

Yamaguchi is one of more than 200 commercial aquarium fishermen in Hawaii. His slow and careful 
methods have won praise from a worldwide organization trying to develop standards for the $200 million 
a year global industry. Aquarium fishermen in other countries, such as the Philippines and Indonesia, 
often use cyanide, which leaves a poisonous residue, to stun the fish.

"Techniques in Hawaii are defining best practice," said Paul Holthus, director of the Marine Aquarium 
Council, which is crafting the worldwide industry standards.

Skill and knowledge required

Yamaguchi began catching fish for his own saltwater aquarium as a teenager living in 'Aiea, and 
started selling his catch in 1970 when he found he could collect more than he needed. He snorkeled 
for fish until 1973, when he learned to scuba dive. By 1975, he was a full-time diver with his own 
boat. He has supported himself for more than 30 years by diving. In that time he has cultivated the 
ability to look at a spot and know whether he will get a catch.

He knows which way a fish will turn before the fish knows, said an admiring colleague.

Gathering live reef fish requires a level of skill and knowledge that deters many divers from entering 
the industry.

Catching the fish is only half the job. Getting them to the surface is always dicey. Fish must be 
decompressed to relieve pressure in their air bladders or they will explode as they are brought to 
the surface. That requires either a steady hand and a hypodermic needle or a lot of patience.

The hypodermic needle is used to pierce the bladder just below the fish's skin and release pressure 
before it is brought to the surface. The less-invasive method uses buckets with spring-loaded lids to 
bring fish to the surface slowly, similar to the way humans rest along a mountain trail to avoid altitude

Yamaguchi prefers the bucket method. Once he has the fish safely on shore, he takes them to Wayne's 
Ocean World in Halawa to collect cash.

Wayne Sugiyama runs one of the bigger import-export marine fish businesses in the state. With about 
10,000 gallons of specially treated water circulating through long handmade plexiglass tanks, he is 
able to take in up to 1,200 fish a week. About half his fish are local and the others are imported.

Sugiyama then sends them off to a wide range of destinations, from the Waikiki Aquarium to collectors
in Canada and Europe. In each case, delivering healthy fish is the name of his game.

"People don't remember the good fish," Sugiyama said. "They only remember that one bad shipment."

To make sure they arrive in good shape, Sugiyama keeps fish in his tanks for three to five days to 
empty their digestive systems. That way, they won't foul the water in their shipping bags. Prior to 
shipment, each fish is packaged in two plastic bags with a layer of newspaper between them to prevent 
punctures. The packages are then fit into styrofoam coolers that hold 11 to 15 bags of fish comfortably 
and shipped overnight to wholesalers and retailers. Only flights to Europe take more than a day.

"The idea is to have a quicker turnover, where fish can end up in a more natural environment faster," 
Sugiyama said.


Some of our customers are high profile and set high standards," he said. "If you raise the standards 
of quality, everybody has to work harder. Then you don't get cheap fish and poor quality on the market."

Bruce Carlson knows the value of good quality fish. As director of the Waikiki Aquarium he has seen 
excitement and interest in marine life grow as people walk among the tanks of exotic fish.

Carlson remembers his first fish, a small freshwater black molly, which he got when he was five. At 
age 8, he graduated to a saltwater aquarium and hasn't been without one since.

"You can't get the same appreciation from a book as from an aquarium," he said. "If I saw a picture 
of a black molly instead of an aquarium, I probably would've forgotten them 40 years ago."

How many is too many?

The debate over harvesting aquarium fish is made more complicated by the difficulty of knowing how 
many fish there are. Tracking fish populations is complex in part because of their life cycles and 
habitat preferences. A reef may recruit large amounts of larval fish one year but not the next because 
of a change in weather or currents.

"The body of information upon which to draw conclusions is not large enough," Miyasaki said.

That has left charter divers and aquarium fish collectors to battle over how large a catch is a 
sustainable. The issue is particularly contentious on the Kona coastline, where fishermen, dive tour
operators and aquarium collectors share about 147 miles of narrow reef.

Choquette of Dive Makai Charters said she noticed the impact aquarium collectors had on the reefs 
almost as soon as she began her business 27 years ago. By the early 1980s the difference was more 
obvious, she said, when populations of fish would diminish within a day.

"There's about 50 collectors here and that's about 45 too many," Choquette said.

Yellow tangs are particularly abundant off the coast of the Big Island. That's where divers catch as 
many as 7,000 to 8,000 a week.

The Lost Fish Coalition, a group of nearly 400 community and Mainland residents concerned about the 
population of fish in Kona, has organized efforts to regulate the industry.

Their work led to a community-based management system, the West Hawaii Fisheries Council, which 
designated nine areas comprising 35 percent of the Kona reefs as fishery replenishment sites. Since 
Dec. 31, 1999, these areas were closed to aquarium fishermen.

William Walsh, a biologist with the Kailua-Kona aquatics division, said studies show that a minimum of 
20 percent closure is needed to sustain reefs. Less than 1 percent is closed on the Big Island and less 
than .03 percent is closed in the state, he said.

"The simplest and most effective way for ensuring sustainable management," Walsh said, "is to set aside 
parts of the shoreline."

Article Courtesy of: Honolulu Advertiser-August 12, 2001
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