LIHU‘E — Robert Wintner, better known as “Snorkel Bob” all over Hawai‘i, announced Wednesday that he has accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a marine conservation group known for taking direct action against illegal whaling worldwide.
“This is a two-way street; it’s not just Snorkel Bob’s joins the Sea Shepherd Board of Directors,” Wintner said. “The big news is, Sea Shepherd is onboard the campaign to end the aquarium trade globally.”
Wintner is the president of Snorkel Bob’s, a popular ocean activities store present on Kaua‘i, O‘ahu, Maui and Big Island. He has been an active supporter of a ban in the aquarium fish collection in Hawai‘i and is the founder and executive director of the Snorkel Bob Foundation, a nonprofit focused on reef recovery.
Wintner will join the international nonprofit’s select group of seven board members and Chair Farley Mowat, a naturalist and author of books such as “Never Cry Wolf,” “A Whale for the Killing” and “Sea of Slaughter.”
Sea Shepherd’s Board of Directors make all strategic short- and long-term decisions for the organization, states the nonprofit’s website. Directors serve without compensation or other tangible incentives.
Sea Shepherd’s invitation, Wintner said, probably came from a suggestion from Capt. Paul Watson, founder of the marine conservation organization, and Dr. Ben Zuckerman, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles. Both of them are also board members.
“They needed another director, and I think my name came up because of a couple of reasons,” said Wintner, adding that Sea Shepherd wanted a presence in Hawai‘i and wanted to expand support to protect reef fish.
“This really connects the dots for Sea Shepherd,” he said. “They are known globally and they are a global movement now.”
Sea Shepherd has millions of members worldwide.
“They wanted to make that connection between the biggest critters in the ocean and the smallest,” he said.
In August 2010, Sea Shepherd published an online commentary from Wintner, titled, “The dark hobby: How can we stop the devastating impact of home aquaria on reefs worldwide?”
“It really gave global exposure for the first time that traffic of wildlife for the pet trade is a bad thing, no matter what species or what hobby is involved,” Wintner said. “It also really elucidated the hazard and the damage done.”
On Sept. 4 and 7, Sea Shepherd published Wintner’s “The dark hobby redux,” part I and II, respectively. In this new commentary, Wintner said he delved deeper into the aquarium trade, examining the industry’s three tiers: The supply from Hawai‘i, the demand from the Mainland and mid-level retailers.
Additionally, Wintner’s latest commentary outlined a corruption in the Hawai‘i state government, he said, questioning a potential conflict of interest merging on collusion — a secret agreement between two or more parties for an illegal or deceitful means.
Hawai‘i, he said, has a natural resources director who was once a licensed aquarium collector and who continues to orchestrate the aquarium trade entrenchment onto Hawai‘i’s reefs.
“That’s conflict of interest,” Wintner said of William Aila Jr., chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. “He’s also in continued contact with huge vested interest in the aquarium trade; that’s collusion and that’s a bad situation, and people don’t know about that.”
Wintner also pointed the finger at Gov. Neil Abercrombie, saying the aquarium trade is an “Abercrombie production” with Aila directing it, and all culpability comes from the top.
“Aloha, Neil Abercrombie, this is how old Hawai‘i responds to the state of Hawai‘i,” Wintner said of the efforts to ban aquarium fish collection. “The state of Hawai‘i has gone in a bad direction, and old Hawai‘i is waking up to respond that; this is kuleana, this is pono, this is not politics.”
DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward said when Aila was undergoing Senate confirmation for his gubernatorial appointment to DLNR chair, “certain parties” raised the issue that his aquarium fish collector license could represent a conflict of interest, so he promptly turned in his permit and commercial marine license and is no longer active.
Ward said neither Aila or Abercrombie have a vested interest in the aquarium trade, and questioned if Wintner has a vested interest in banning it.
Threat to Kaua‘i?
Ward said aquarium collecting on Kaua‘i occurs in “very small” numbers, which are “insignificant” to the total take for the state.
But the number of fish reportedly collected on Kaua‘i is not available, because Ward said when there are less than three collectors on a given island, “the statistics are too small to share publicly,” and therefore confidential.
“While the trade on Kaua‘i is relatively small, nobody should really underestimate the damage that one aquarium collector can do,” Wintner said. “Anybody can go out and take any fish off the reef. And they do that. Kaua‘i has been targeted for more exotic species, mainly because they are still on Kaua‘i.”
He said there are two patterns going on; one is that the aquarium trade goes underwater, and therefore it’s under the radar, and the other is that once a species is gone, people don’t think about it anymore.
The biggest challenge of the fight against the aquarium trade is making people understand that “somebody somewhere” is not raising the fish, it is being caught in the wild, according to Wintner.
The DLNR is currently proposing a “white list” of species that may be collected on the west coast of Big Island for aquarium purposes, according to Ward.
“They call it a ‘white list,’ I call it a ‘hit list,’” Wintner said. “Just think of it as a ‘hit list,’ that way it’s easy to remember: This is what they’re going to kill.”
Wintner said O‘ahu’s “hit list” would also apply to Kaua‘i, and include exotic species available on the Garden Isle, which have not yet been “hammered into a bliss.”
Ward, however, said the proposed draft rules on aquarium collecting for O‘ahu does not constitute a list.
Effect on tourism: Positive or negative?
Some of the species sell for hundreds of dollars, according to Wintner, who said the banded angelfish can sell for as much as $900.
A ban on the taking of the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse, which cleans reefs of parasites, is being proposed for the Big Island, but may continue to be harvested from other islands, he said. The “iconic” and “charismatic” fish “will absolutely, positively die in 30 days in captivity,” but the response from hobbyists is that the fish is so fun to watch that it’s worth it, Wintner said.
Many reefs along Big Island’s Kona coast is now loaded with parasites, because over-harvesting of the Hawaiian cleaner wrasse, according to Wintner.
“This is the strength of Hawai‘i tourism and they’re going to take it and sell it for personal gain,” Wintner said. “You’ve got 50 collectors who are causing all this damage throughout the Hawaiian Islands.”
To the DLNR, however, some of Wintner’s claims may be unfounded.
Commercial catch data information does not indicate that the aquarium fishery is damaging the reefs in Hawai‘i, according to Ward.
She said there are two DLNR reports to the Legislature addressing the management of aquarium fish collection for West Hawai‘i, but these reports do not address whether the industry causes any damage to reefs in that area.
And while there is no study that the DLNR is aware of that examined the relationship between the aquarium trade and the visitor industry, anecdotal information indicates the aquarium trade has a positive effect on the visitor industry, Ward said.
“Aquariums introduce people who would not otherwise be able to see marine life and reefs to care for them, and therefore support the reefs without ever having physically being on a reef,” she said. “These images and examples of reef tanks advertises and stimulates visitors to come to Hawai‘i.”
160 fish per hour
A reef restoration project based on Maui, For the Fishes, states on its website that every 22.5 seconds a fish is taken from Hawai‘i’s reefs, amounting to 160 fish per hour, or 3,840 per day. Forty percent of these fish won’t live to see an aquarium, dying in transport, and nearly all survivors will be dead within a year.
Last year, an effort at the state Legislature to ban aquarium fish collecting failed to advance, despite support from a resolution from the Kaua‘i and Big Island county councils.
Wintner said he thinks there will be continuing efforts in the upcoming Legislature against the aquarium trade.
Additionally, he said, there will be continuing efforts with Earthjustice, regarding a lawsuit alleging the state of Hawai‘i’s failure on assessing environmental impacts prior to issuing aquarium fish collection permits.
“This is what we call the state of Hawai‘i’s failure; this is what William Aila calls the state of Hawai‘i’s success,” Wintner said.
The DLNR will hold two public meetings Dec. 5 — one on O‘ahu and one on Big Island — regarding proposed rules for management of aquarium fish collecting.
“They’ll use the world ‘sustainable’ because in the places that they are going to still take (fish) they haven’t wiped them out yet, and there are still a few bucks to be made,” Wintner said.
Visit www.hawaii.gov/dlnr for more information on the meetings.
Visit www.seashepherd.org for more information on the marine conservation organization.