Overview of Hawaii Research

Sustainability in the Aquarium Trade

By Brian Tissot

Yellow tangs in Hawaii. Photos: Bill Walsh

Yellow tangs in Hawaii. Photos: Bill Walsh

Background and Summary

For the last 20 years we have been involved in the conservation of live-caught aquarium fish along the western shore of the Island of Hawai`i (hereafter West Hawai`i) using community-based management of a network of MPAs.  Our collaborative conservation program, which involves multiple agencies, including state resource agencies, university faculty and students, large and small NGOs, and a variety of local community groups, has successfully implemented and studied a network of MPAs designed to balance community interests, the coral reef dive tourism industry, and a sustainable aquarium fishery. The project is unique in that it has engaged a diverse group of stakeholders in co-management, education, and cooperative research using a variety of disciplinary approaches. The project has demonstrated successful replenishment of fishes within MPAs, seeding via larval connectivity between local populations, adult spillover into fished areas, improvements in fishery productivity, increased community vigilance, improved perceptions regarding MPAs, and reduced conflict among stakeholders.

The West Hawai`i community has a long history of collaboration regarding resource conflicts, primarily concerning the aquarium fishery, which extends back into the late 1980s. Synergy among these organizations, along with high community involvement and support, eventually created a critical mass for effective co-management through Act 306 of the Hawai`i State Legislature in 1998. Act 306 established  the West Hawai`i Regional Fishery Management Area, which provided a flexible administrative framework and promoted an adaptive, co-management approach to resource management. Act 306 promoted the input and consideration of ecological information as well as local knowledge into a co-management process for creating a network of MPAs along the West Hawai`i coast and developing management plans to deal with current and emerging threats.  The West Hawai'i Fisheries Council, a community-based council composed of members from diverse geographic areas that represented the various stakeholder, community and user groups, was created in 1998 to develop and recommend management plans to the state.  This group, comprised of up to 25 volunteer members, has now been meeting on a monthly basis for over 10 years. Through a collaborative, environmental dispute resolution process, the council has developed a wide variety of successful management plans, which included the size, shape and location of the MPAs, limited entry for the aquarium fishery, limited collecting for aquarium species of concern, and adaptive management of the FRA network through new closures and opening of previous MPAs. 

A long-term monitoring program was started in 1999 to study the effectiveness of the MPA network to replenish aquarium fish populations using a before-after-control-impact (BACI) statistical design. The monitoring program, a collaborative effort between state agencies and academia, relied heavily on undergraduate students. As of this year, almost four dozen students have been involved in the monitoring effort with many going on to further graduate studies and/or employment in marine resource management. By 2007, closed areas had five times the density of prime targeted sized fish (5-10 cm), and 48% higher density of adults than open areas. These species included seven of the ten most heavily collected species (representing 94% of all collected fish) and significant increases in the yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens), which constitutes the majority of the fishery. Overall seven of nine of the MPAs showed a positive effect on the abundance of yellow tang, with four MPAs showing statistically significant increases in abundance. The densities of adult yellow tang in ‘boundary’ areas (open areas < 1 km from nearest MPA boundary) were significantly higher than in open areas far from MPA boundaries, which was indicative of spillover at that scale. Graduate student research on yellow tang life history (survival, growth, reproduction, and ontogenetic patterns of movement and habitat use), improved the interpretation of the monitoring data and increased public knowledge about the species. Some of the variation in MPA effectiveness can be attributed to variation in the abundance and distribution of key juvenile and adult habitats and to reef geomorphology. In addition, recent research on larval dispersal around the island of Hawai`i has illustrated the potential for larval "seeding" and replenishment of fished areas by spawning in MPAs and other unfished areas.  Genetic analyses (parentage based on microsatellite DNA) have thus far revealed 4 parent-offspring pairs, demonstrating both general northward within-island larval dispersal, and especially, seeding via larval connectivity between local populations of yellow tang. 

The effective MPA network has been associated with an increase in the productivity of the aquarium fishery.  Based on aquarium collector catch reports, the total catch, and the catch of the top two species, yellow tang and goldring surgeonfish (Ctenochaetus strigosus), was higher during the five years after MPA establishment than in its previous 38 year history. The price per fish received by collectors for yellow tang increased 33% and the catch per unit effort of aquarium fish is higher in West Hawai`i than elsewhere in the state and has maintained an upward trend.  We are also conducting cooperative fishery research with aquarium collectors to obtain information on the catch and fishing practices of the aquarium industry and to evaluate the effectiveness of MPAs and how they influence the fishing site selection.  We are studying “spillover” catch effects near MPA boundaries, examining sites known to experience frequent fishing pressure, and have assessed fisher perception about existing management policies in West Hawai`i.

Education programs in West Hawai`i were used to articulate the results of studies to state agencies, the legislature, and public. These activities were coordinated by several institutions and NGOs including the University of Hawai`i Sea Grant, the Malama Kai Foundation, and academia.  Our project also involves extensive K-12 and college-level education and involvement in research, a volunteer coral reef monitoring program, community outreach, recruitment of underrepresented groups (primarily native Hawaiians) into University research, and national and international dissemination of scientific publications, public talks, and involvement in management- and policy-initiatives. This overall project serves as a global example on how to integrate natural science, social science, and conservation- and education-initiatives into a community-based management initiative that has demonstrated successful conservation outcomes.

Science team in West Hawaii. 2000.

Science team in West Hawaii. 2000.

Principle Investigators:

Brian Tissot (Humboldt State University) and Bill Walsh (Hawai`i Division of Aquatic Resources)

Graduate Students:

  • Jonathan Hultquist
  • Claudia Capitini
  • Delisse Ortiz
  • Emily Munday
  • Todd Stevenson
  • Molly Bogeberg
  • Cori Kane


•    Ivor Williams, Hawai`i Cooperative Fishery Research Unit
•    Jeremy Claisse, University of Hawai`i at Manoa
•    Sara Peck, University of Hawai`i Sea Grant Program
•    Jim Beets, University of Hawai`i Hilo
•    Mark Hixon, Oregon State University
•    Leon Hallacher, University of Hawai`i Hilo


  • NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program
  • Hawaii Coral Reef Initiative Research Program 
  • Conservation International
  • Cascadia Conservation Trust
  • Hawaii Sea Grant

Media and blog posts:


  • Tissot, B. N. 1999. Adaptive Management of Aquarium Fish Collecting in Hawaii. Live Reef Fish Information Bulletin 6: 16-19. 
  • Tissot, B. N. and L. E. Hallacher. 2000. Diver impacts on corals at Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. Technical Report, Division of Aquatic Resources, Honolulu, HI. 10 pp.
  • Tissot, B. N. and D. M. Brosnan. 2001. Long term coral reef monitoring programs: working towards a synthesis of science, management and policy. In: Best, B. and R. Pomeroy, Relevant Findings from the 9th International Coral Reef Symposium: Implications for Coral Reef Management and Policy. USAID.
  • Tissot, B. N. and L. E. Hallacher. 2003. The effects of aquarium collectors on coral reef fishes in Hawaii. Conservation Biology 17(6): 1759-1768. PDF
  • Tissot, B.N. , Walsh, W. and L. E. Hallacher. 2003. Evaluating the effectiveness of a marine reserve network in Hawaii to increase the productivity of an aquarium fishery. Pacific Science 58(2): 175-188. PDF
  • Brown, E., E. Cox, P. Jokiel, K. Rodgers, W. Smith, B. N. Tissot, S. Coles and J. Hultquist. 2004.  Development of benthic sampling methods for the Coral Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (CRAMP) in Hawai‘i. Pacific Science 58(2): 145-158.
  • Aaby, A., D. J. Wright, B. N. Tissot. 2004. Case study of the ArcGIS marine data model: examining habitat utilization patterns of reef fish along the west coast of Hawaii. Proc. 24th Annual ESRI User Conference, San Diego, CA, Paper 1458. 
  • Capitini, C., B. N. Tissot, M. Carroll, W. Walsh and S. Peck. 2004. Aquarium fisheries management in west Hawaii: a dynamic conflict.  Soc. Nat. Res. 17: 763-778. PDF
  • Walsh, W. J.,  B. N. Tissot and L. E. Hallacher. 2004.  A report on the findingsand recommendations of effectiveness of the West Hawai`i regional fishery management area. Report to the 23rd Hawaii Legislature. 38 pp. PDF
  • Tissot, B. N. 2005. Integral marine ecology: community-based fishery management in Hawaii. World Futures 61: 79-95. PDF
  • Tissot, B.N., Walsh, W. and L. E. Hallacher. 2005. Evaluating the effectiveness of an MPA network in Hawai`i: ecological, economic and social dimensions. Proceedings of the North American Marine Protected Areas Network Symposium on financing and economic benefits of Marine Protected Areas, Loreto, Mexico. 11pp.
  • Williams, I. D., W.J. Walsh, B.N. Tissot, L.E. Hallacher. 2006. Impact of observers’ experience level on counts of fishes in underwater visual surveys. Marine Ecology Progress Series 310: 185-191. PDF
  • Ortiz, D. M and B. N. Tissot. 2008. Ontogenetic patterns of habitat use by a coral reef fish in an MPA network: A multi-scaled remote sensing and in-situ approach. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 365: 217-232. PDF
  • Williams, I. D., W.J. Walsh, J. T. Claisse, B.N. Tissot, K. A. Stamoulis. 2009. Impacts of a Hawaiian marine protected area network on the abundance and fishery sustainability of the yellow tang, Zebrasoma flavescens.  Biological Conservation 142: 1066-1073. PDF
  • Tissot, B. N. W. J. Walsh, and M. A. Hixon. 2009. Hawaiian Islands Marine Ecosystem Case Study: Ecosystem and Community-Based Management in West Hawaii . Coastal Management 37: 255-273. PDF
  • Tissot, B. N. 2009. Integral marine ecology: community-based fishery management in Hawaii. Chapter 13 In S. Hargens and M. Zimmerman. Uniting Multiple Perspectives in the Natural World. Shambhala Publications, Boston, MA. 
  • Christie, P.,  Pollnac, R. B.,  Fluharty, D. L.,  Hixon,. M. A., Lowry, G. K., Mahon, R.,  Pietri, D., Tissot, B. N.,  White, A. T.,  Armada, N., Liza Eisma-Osorio, R. L.. 2009. Tropical Marine EBM Feasibility: A Synthesis of Case Studies and Comparative Analyses. Coastal Management 37: 374-385. PDF
  • Tissot, B. N. Barbara A. Best, Eric H. Borneman, Andrew W. Bruckner, Cara H. Cooper, Heather D’Agnes, Timothy P. Fitzgerald, Amanda Leland, Susan Lieberman, Amy Mathews Amos, Rashid Sumaila, T.M. Telecky. Frazer McGilvray, Brian J. Plankis, Andrew L. Rhyne, Glynnis G. Roberts, Benjamin Starkhouse, Todd C. Stevenson. 2010. How US Ocean Policy and Market Power Can Reform the Coral Reef Wildlife Trade. Marine Policy 34: 1385-1388. PDF
  • Christie M.R., Tissot B.N., Albins M.A., Beets J.P., Jia Y., et al. 2010. Larval Connectivity in an Effective Network of Marine Protected Areas. PLoS ONE 5(12): e15715. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015715. PDF
  • Stevenson,  T.C., Tissot, B. N. and J. Dierkik. 2011. Fisher behaviour influences catch productivity and selectivity in West Hawaii's aquarium fishery ICES J. Mar. Sci. (2011) 68(5): 813-822 doi:10.1093/icesjms/fsr020 PDF
  • Grorud-Colvert, K. Joachim Claudet, Mark Carr, Jennifer Caselle, Jon Day, Alan Friedlander, Sarah Lester, Thierry Lison de Loma, B. Tissot, Dan Malone. 2011. The assessment of marine reserve networks: guidelines for ecological evaluation. Pp. 293-321 In: Claudet, J. (ed) Marine Protected Areas: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Cambridge Univ. Press. Cambridge, UK.  
  • Ortiz, D, M. and B. N. Tissot. 2012. Evaluating ontogenetic patterns of habitat use by reef fish in relation to the effectiveness of marine protected areas in West Hawaii. J. Exp. Mar. Biol. Ecol.  432-433: 83-93. PDF
  • Fox, H. E., K. M. Haisfield, M. S. Brown, T. C. Stevenson, B. N. Tissot, W. J. Walsh, I. D. Williams. 2012. Influences of oceanographic and meteorological features on reef fish recruitment in Hawai`i. Mar. Ecol. Prog. Ser. 463: 259-272. PDF
  • Stevenson, T. C. and B. N. Tissot. 2013. Evaluating Marine Protected Areas for Managing Marine Resource Conflict in Hawaii. Marine Policy. 39: 215-223 PDF
  • Stevenson, T. C., B. N. Tissot and W. J. Walsh. 2013. Socioeconomic Consequences of Fishing Displacement from Marine Protected Areas in Hawaii. Biol. Conservation 160: 50-58 PDF
  • Maui Coral Reef Recovery Team. 2013. Ola Nā Papa i Mālama ‘Ia: A Practical Plan for the Technical and Cultural Restoration of Maui’s Coral Reefs. Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, Kahului, Maui. 100 pp. (one of 16 authors).
  • Walsh, W., S. Cotton, C. Barnett, C. Couch, L. Preskitt, B. Tissot, and K. Osada-D’Avella. 2013. Long-term monitoring of coral reefs of the main Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources Technical Report. 97 pp.
  • Calado, R., M. C. Leal, M. C.M. Vaz, C. Brown, R. Rosa, T. C. Stevenson, C. H. Cooper, B. N. Tissot, Y. Li, D. J. Thornhill. 2014. Caught in the Act: how the U.S. Lacey Act can hamper the fight against cyanide fishing in tropical coral reefs. Conservation Letters DOI: 10.1111/conl.12088. 
  • Stevenson, T. C. and B. N. Tissot. 2014. Current trends in the analysis of marine resource co-management arrangements in coral reef ecosystems: a social-ecological systems perspective. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability. 7: 134-139. 
  • Grorud-Colvert, K., Claudet, J., Tissot, B. N., Caselle, J., Carr, M. H., Day, J. C., Friedlander A. M., Lester, S. E. Lison de Loma, T. Malone, D., and W. J. Walsh. 2014. Marine protected area networks: assessing whether the whole is greater than the sum of its parts? PLoS One. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0102298
  • Friedlander, A. M, K. A. Stamoulis, J. N. Kittinger, J. Drazen and B. N. Tissot. 2014. Understanding the scale of marine protection in Hawai‘i: from community-based management to the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. Adv. Mar. Biol. Chapter 5, in: Johnson, M L. and J. Sandell (eds). Marine Managed Areas and fisheries. Vo. 69. pp. 153-204. PDF
  • Munday, E.S., Tissot, B. N., Heidel, J.R., Miller-Morgan, T. 2015. Effects of venting and decompression on mortality and sublethal effects in yellow tangs caught for the aquarium trade. PeerJ 756


  • 2015-2016. Habitat utilization and Ecology of Aquarium Fishes on Shallow and Mesophotic Reefs in Hawaii.  NOAA, Coral Reef Conservation Program. PI. $79,999
  • 2013-2014. Ecology and Fishing Impacts on Aquarium Fishes on Mesophotic Reefs in Hawaii. NOAA, Coral Reef Conservation Program. PI. $79,870
  • 2011-2012. Effects of venting, decompression, transport and holding on coral reef fish in the aquarium trade in Hawaii. NOAA, Coral Reef Conservation Program. PI. $90,000
  • 2010-2011. Improving Management of Hawaii’s Marine Aquarium Fishery through Evaluation of Ecological and Socioeconomic Indicators.NOAA, Coral Reef Conservation Program. PI . $49,900
  • 2008-2009. Evaluating the effectiveness of marine protected areas for enhancing an aquarium fishery and alleviating conflict in Hawai`i. NOAA, Coral Reef Conservation Program. PI . $49,604
  • 2007-2008. Effects of habitat and predation on the effectiveness of an MPA network to replenish the aquarium fish, Zebrasoma flavescens . NOAA, Habitat Conservation Program. PI . $40,000
  • 2006-2008. Larval connectivity and fish population replenishment in an MPA network Hawaii Sea Grant. Co-PI $54,106.
  • 2006-2008. Larval connectivity and fish population replenishment in a network of marine managed areas for tropical aquarium fisheries. Conservation International / Cascadia Conservation Trust. co-PI. $100,000.
  • 2006-2007. Effects of habitat on the settlement and survivorship of yellow tangs (Zebrasoma flavescens) in an MPA network in Hawaii. NOAA, Coral Reef Conservation Program. PI . $50,000
  • 2005-2006. Assessment of genetic diversity and connectivity in fish replenishment areas in the Hawaiian yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens) . Hawaii Coral reef Initiative Program, NOAA, National Ocean Services . Co-PI. $43,000.
  • 2004-2005 . Integrated monitoring of coral reefs of West Hawai`i: developing a whole reef and ecosystem approach for the main Hawaiian Islands. Hawaii Coral reef Initiative Program, National Ocean Services . Co-PI .   $90,700.
  • 2004-2005. Effects of habitat and life history characteristics on marine reserve effectiveness.   Hawaii Coral reef Initiative Program,  NOAA, Coral Reef Conservation Program . PI  $40,000
  • 2003-2004 . Evaluation of the effectiveness of fishery replenishment areas in west Hawai`i with recommendations towards the establishment of an MPA network in the state of Hawai`i . Hawaii Coral reef Initiative Program,  NOAA, National Ocean Services. PI . $89,000
  • 2002-2003 . Impacts of aquarium fish collecting and the effectiveness of MPAs in Hawai’i   Hawaii Coral reef Initiative Program,  NOAA, National Ocean Services Program. PI $102,000.
  • 2001-2002 . Impacts of aquarium collectors and the effectiveness of marine protected areas in Hawai'i.  Hawaii Coral reef Initiative Program, NOAA National Ocean Services. PI . $151,000
  • 2000-2001. Impacts of aquarium collectors and the effectiveness of marine protected areas in Hawai'i. Hawaii Coral reef Initiative Program, NOAA, National Ocean Services.  PI. $184,000
  • 1999-2000 . Impacts of aquarium collectors and the effectiveness of marine protected areas in Hawai'i. Hawaii Coral reef Initiative Program, NOAA, National Ocean Services.  PI. $70,000
  • 1999-2000. Hawai'i coral reef monitoring and assessment program. Hawaii Coral reef Initiative Program, NOAA, National Ocean Services . Co-PI. $220,000
  • 1998-1999. Hawai'i coral reef monitoring and assessment program.Hawaii Coral reef Initiative Program,  NOAA, National Ocean Services. Co-PI. $197,000