An Earth Day Plea for the Yellow Tangs and Other Endemic Fishes of Hawaii

Green Sea Turtle being cleaned by Yellow Tangs and Gold-ring Surgeonfish

I made this plea on Earth Day in 2009, when this photo won the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s World Ocean Day Photo Contest that year, and thought I’d pitch it again today, on Earth Day. A good plea never gets tired.

The photo above is of a Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas), an endangered species, being cleaned by Yellow Tangs (Zebrasoma flavescens) and Gold-ring Surgeonfish (Ctenochaetus strigosus) at Turtle Towers dive site, Kona, Hawai’i. This symbiotic behavior keeps the turtles free of algae and parasites while providing a food source for the fish.

The unfortunate thing is while the Yellow Tang is not an endangered species, it should be. It’s one of the most desirable species in the Aquarium Fish Industry. A total of 103 fish species are collected, and the Yellow Tang makes up 70-90% of the fish caught in an industry driven by the demand created by hobbyists, who in many cases have no idea how to care for the fish. And even with the best care, in a commercial aquarium, these fish don’t live nearly as long as they would in the wild.

Fish collection causes significant declines in fish populations. 80% of the catch are herbivorous fish, a reduction of which causes algal overgrowth in coral, which impacts coral reef health over the long term. Currently, it is not known conclusively what the extent of the impact is, but there are several grassroots efforts working hard to answer that question. Bottom line for the turtle above, no cleaning means an abundance of algae and parasites, which can’t be good for its health.

So next time you’re snorkeling or scuba diving in Hawai‘i and see a Yellow Tang, or a Kole, Achilles Tang, Orangespine Unicornfish, Longnose Butterflyfish or a Moorish Idol—the seven species representing 90% of a usual harvest, be thankful for them. They get to swim wild with you for another day.

And happy Earth Day. Do something good for the planet today.

Source: The Aquarium Trade in Hawai‘i – Pacific Fisheries Coalition

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