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Environmentalists, hobbyists clash over collection of tropical fish in Hawaiian waters

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A conservation group backing efforts to stop the harvesting of tropical fish for the aquarium trade in Hawaii says they plan to expand their efforts to the Philippines and Indonesia.

The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has condemned the practice that sees almost 30 million tropical fish taken from the world's coral reefs every year, with almost half a million taken from waters around the Hawaiian Islands.

While scientist have called aquarium fisheries in Hawaii some of the world's best managed, conservationists say it's inappropriate to remove reef fish from their traditional natural habitats just to give people something to keep in aquariums to look at.

"In this day and age, where the ocean faces a crisis ... there's absolutely no justification for a fishery for hobby," Sea Shepherd's Mike Long said.

A fish such as a yellow tang -- the most commonly collected species along the west coast of Hawaii's Big Island -- can sell for between $30 and $60 in aquarium shops around the world.

The Sea Shepherd group has garnered considerable criticism for what are seen as overly aggressive tactics. Society member have used boats to ram Japanese whaling ships operating in Antarctica, throwing glass bottle of acids onto the whaling vessels.

And an underwater confrontation between some collectors in Hawaii and society members resulted in the filing of legal complaints by both sides. Prosecutors say they've not yet decided if they'll file any charges.

Long says his group does not aim to attack or harass fishermen, but feels it must draw attention to the damage being done to ocean ecosystems just for the benefit of hobbyists.

In Hawaii, a coalition of state regulators, fisherman and even some local environmentalists have suggested the Sea Shepherds focus their efforts somewhere else, arguing scientific studies show wide-ranging aquarium fishery regulations in the state have resulted in fish stocks rebounding there.

There have been rules in place regarding fish collecting off the west coast of the Big Island since the late 1990s.

"We don't have a problem here anymore," Tina Owens of local environmentalist group Lost Fish Coalition said.

Andy Rhyne, a researcher scientist at the New England Aquarium, agrees.

Hawaii's fishery management still has room for improvement, he said, but the regulations in place have "really worked."

People are letting their feelings get in the way of rational discussion of the issue, he said.

"This is not a debate or data or science," he said. "It's an emotional argument."

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