BY RENE UMBERGER – One way to understand Hawaii’s aquarium trade is to look at the big picture and compare it to the trade in other island states and nations.

A new study published in May makes it possible, for the first time, to do just that.

Examining U.S. import documents from 2005, the report revealed a snapshot of the U.S. appetite for reef fish, which accounts for 60% of the wildlife captured worldwide for saltwater aquarium hobbyists and for-profit and non-profit public display aquariums (e.g. Sea World, Disney/Epcot, New England Aquarium, Georgia Aquarium…).

The Hawaii trade was excluded from the report, because there are no similar records for inter-state commerce. However, Hawaii aquarium collectors are required to report their catch to the state and must also document international exports. Despite widespread fraud and underreporting, these mechanisms provide valuable minimum volume and species estimates for the wildlife captured on Hawaii’s reefs for the U.S. mainland market: in 2005 it was over 500,000 fish (plus 283,000 hermit crabs, shrimps and other invertebrates).

Comparing Hawaii’s 500,000 fish to the international volume presented in the study produces a clear picture of a huge trade in wildlife flowing from Hawaii’s reefs to the U.S. mainland at a volume that dwarfs all other reefs except those in the Philippines and Indonesia, the top 2 suppliers.

For example:

  • Some areas like the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and, now, Palau export zero fish to the U.S. aquarium market because the aquarium trade is banned.
  • Behind Hawaii, Sri Lanka was the fourth largest exporter at 261,789 fish –about half of Hawaii’s volume.
  • Hawaii’s volume was greater than Australia (19,705), Fiji (165,471), French Polynesia (46,161), Kiribati (133,050), Solomon Islands (121,891) and Tonga (10,627) combined.

Some might assume that Hawaii’s reefs must be vast and thick with fish, much more diverse and abundant than the dozens of countries exporting far fewer fish. But while Hawaii’s reefs are quite lovely and unique, they pale in comparison to the size, diversity and abundance of reefs that thrive inside or near the coral triangle and within the latitudes and conditions that are ideal for highly productive coral reefs.

For example, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is the largest coral reef in the world, spanning 135,000 square miles. Stretching along the Queensland coast, at its northern end, it’s a virtually continuous reef and comes within 10 degrees of the equator. Marine life on the GBR is prolific and biodiversity is high. The number of inshore fish species is estimated at 1,854, and in one study, just large reef fishes and damselfishes accounted for nearly 19,000 fish per hectare. The Australian government recognizes the importance of fish to reef health and has strong management with strict quotas in place. As mentioned above Australia exported to the U.S. just under 20,000 fish in 2005.

Hawaii, on the other hand, has predominantly fringing and apron reefs that occur narrowly along the islands coastlines. Located on the northern edge of the tropics and in the middle of the Pacific, Hawaii’s reefs have much lower diversity and abundance than those closer to the coral triangle, like the GBR. Hawaii’s reefs average about 566 inshore fish species overall and just 10,000 fish per hectare. The state of Hawaii allows unlimited take of reef fish for aquariums, and the vast majority of the half million fish taken in 2005 came from reefs along 100 miles of the Big Island’s West Hawaii/Kona coastline.

Australia’s resource management plans, encompassing an entire continent with reefs thousands of times larger than Hawaii’s and many times more diverse and abundant, determined that fish are more valuable when left on their reefs — not captured and sold to the world’s largest consumer of wildlife for aquariums.

Hawaii’s so-called “management” of its very narrow and limited reefs allows unlimited commercial take for aquariums which, in 2005, lead to mainland sales of reef fish that were, at a minimum, 25 times higher than Australia’s.

Why do Hawaii’s decision-makers continue managing our reefs as if Hawaii were a third world country, supporting a trade that benefits very few, at the expense of all others, while laying waste to fragile reef wildlife and the ecosystems they come from?

How can we help them come to terms with this staggering disregard for Hawaii’s reefs, wildlife and natural legacy?

1. Get informed:  watch and our fifteen 1 minute videos which we hope will inform, inspire and motivate. The wildlife profiled in these videos reveals what’s been lost and what’s at stake.

2.  Take Action:

  • Support our work
  • Send a Postcard to the Governor with one sentence on why you support banning the aquarium trade (don’t worry – we’ll do the work and send it for you!)

3.  Share the videos and spread the word.

Rene Umberger is with the Reef Rescue Alliance




  1. […] Study Reveals Hawaii as 3rd Largest Supplier of Wildlife for Aquariums Some areas like the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and, now, Palau export zero fish to the U.S. aquarium market because the aquarium trade is banned. Behind Hawaii, Sri Lanka was the fourth largest exporter at 261,789 fish –about half of … Read more on Hawaii Reporter […]

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