A bill introduced by Maui County Council Member Mike Molina may tighten up the rules for how aquarium fish is treated after being caught in Maui waters. Existing animal welfare laws only stipulate that ornamental fish collectors must maintain facilities that can keep the fish alive and “in reasonable health”.

“The reality is that the inhumane treatment is inherent in the trade,” said environmentalist and dive operator Renee Umberger. “They don’t consider them to really be animals. That’s why it’s important to change the (legal) definition of what the state considers pets.”

The new bill would piggyback on superseding state laws and is intended to make sure that ornamental fish is treated well. Molina also hopes that the bill will raise awareness about overfishing and the fragility of Hawaii’s reefs. Over the past two decades, Hawaii’s aquarium reef fish population has declined by nearly 60 percent.

According to statistics from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Maui fishermen caught aquarium fish valued at $32,478 last year. In the entire state, the value of all caught aquarium fish was roughly $2 million in the same period.

Robert Wintner, owner of Snorkel Bob’s, now questions why Hawaii is endangering its reef fish population for a mere $2 million a year when hundreds of local jobs in the multimillion scuba and tour sector depends on the wellbeing of the reefs.

Examples of what the Molina bill is suggesting

• Prohibition of several industry practises, such deflating the swim bladder, exposing the fish to air, and temperature changes of more than 2 degrees.
• Mortality rates and dead fish disposal methods must be documented.
• Causing the death of an ornamental fish will be considered an inhumane treatment of aquatic life.
• Violation of the law would be a misdemeanour. The fine would range between $500 and $2,000 and up to a year in jail.

Before the bill goes before the full County Council, it needs to be assigned to a committee for further discussion.