By Elias Savada.
Just because Hawaii has protected its underseas reefs, sand, and rocks from pilferage, the state has taken a totally opposite approach to protect the sea life that does most of the work to keep its reefs from dying.”
The world is a sad and beautiful place. And there are many folks who think Hawaii is one of the most picturesque spots on the planet, both on land and in the sea. I went scuba diving there once, and it was a truly breathtaking moment. In the 50th state, where a big chunk of Paula Fouce’s alarming documentary The Dark Hobby is set, vibrant fish skirt about the ocean waters. Oh, so pretty.
So, where’s the sadness I mention?
Well, millions of those lovely swimmers end up in captivity every year, destined for hobbyists’ tanks. Oh, how lovely they look in your house or on display in your restaurant, for little Timmy to laugh at, or patrons to watch. Thousands of miles from what was once their home, there’s a very large chance at least 90% of these sea-worthy immigrants will be dead in less than a year.
According to EcoWatch, the endangered reefs, which cover but 0.0025 percent of the ocean, generate half of our planet’s oxygen and absorb a third of Earth’s carbon dioxide. When you remove many millions of the colorful herbivores from their home each year, the algae overwhelm the coral. The reefs die.
YouTube celebrity Taylor Nicole Dean, Native Hawaiian Elders, PETA International Media Director Ben Williamson, Teresa Telecky (Executive Director of Humane Society International), biologist-ethologist Jonathan Balcombe (author of What a Fish Knows), politicians, scientists, and even some regular folks promote a startling scenario. Just because Hawaii has protected its underseas reefs, sand, and rocks from pilferage, the state has taken a totally opposite approach to protect the sea life that does most of the work to keep its reefs from dying. Instead, those darling yellow these and blue thats are allowed to be plucked (sometimes with the help of cyanide or dynamite, both of which have disastrous repercussions for the physical reef) by a $4-5 billion dollar industry that obviously has been paying a lot of green to key state politicians.
Fans of the Oscar-winning feature My Octopus Teacher know that anyone’s best friend can be member of a different species. Lots of creatures can think and interact with humans, and some fish are actually self-aware, so don’t just say all they do is swim.
For the Yellow Tang, every year is a hard one. Native to the Pacific Ocean, but especially fond of Hawaii’s Kona Coast, a million of these “livestock” have been shipped out annually by 25 Honolulu reef fish dealers. They’re not technically being poached, as no one has been legally told to treat the fish humanely. Robert “Snorkel Bob” Wintner, a reef activist and the film’s chief spokesperson, is the first of those talking heads to sound the shocking alarm against the cash grabbing, reef-depleting, and yes, legal “collectors.”
It’s taken many of those at the fight’s forefront years to get their point across, and Fouce showcases numerous pieces of legislation that have been proposed to topple the status quo. One was State Senate Bill 1240, which is passed in 2017, to end aquarium permits, with a grandfather clause for current collectors. Wintner seems happy as a clam, until Governor David Ige vetoes the measure. Politics being what it is, and despite the groundswell of support, passage of any the follow-up bills is anything but a slam dunk.
On a Federal level (and barely mentioned in the film) was the gillnet controversy that has caught endangered dolphins and whales in the net’s mesh. Former President Trump vetoed two bills during his last month in office, one being the Driftnet Modernization and Bycatch Reduction Act. It has since been reintroduced by its sponsors, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Rep. Ted Leiu (D-CA).
Of course, it’s not just the aquarium trade extraction that is causing problems, as there’s plenty of plastic, garbage, and chemicals polluting the water, and coral being smuggling.
Fouce, who also wrote the film with editors William Haugse and Timothy Kettle, lets the wet laundry out to dry in front of you. Sometimes it feels like your own dirty linens. Who amongst us had a pet goldfish as a kid? If you graduated to those multi-colored exotic ones later in your life, you’re guilty of supporting the aquarium industry’s titular trade, and supporting the damage it has done to the planet’s reef species and habitat. You are being warned. The Dark Hobby not only wants to inform you of the consequences, it wants to education you of the trickle-down effect you might be causing.
The filmmakers take several side trips that play into the film’s overall theme. One is biodiversity, which had been truly restored in only one place on this planet. The reef about 50 miles south of Cuba (cue the grand orchestral score by Luciano Storti), but the sharks that helped return the ocean to its beauty is threatened by China’s hunger for over 100 million sharks a year for its voracious shark fin soup appetite.
Then there’s the Lionfish invasion into the Caribbean and Atlantic Ocean, a species native to the Pacific but now outnumbering all other fish and creating what Wintner calls the “greatest marine catastrophe in the modern era.” It’s home hobbyists who created this mess — and culling them is not the solution.
Meanwhile the quest continues. Until action is taken, go watch The Dark Hobby and get mad as hell. And pray that someday fish tanks (and the industry behind it) will be outlawed. Maybe it’s time to rethink those large aquatic museums that take so many species out of their natural habitat. Home hobbyists take note and help stop buying fish. Get a tv with a reef cam instead, or just put on that marine aquarium screen saver.
The Dark Hobby will be available on many digital platforms on May 21 a.k.a. Endangered Species Day.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the horror film German Angst and the documentary Nuts! He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (a revised edition will be published by Centipede Press).