Science Meets Scenery in WHAP

University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo
Posted: Apr 1, 2003

Picture if you will a group of lean, tan and attractive young men and women riding down the coastline of West Hawaiʻi in a boat, the telltale taste of salt on their lips from the ocean breeze. Whales breech the water‘s surface and cavort in the background, attempting to imitate their human counterparts who bask in the radiance of the tropical sun.

The boat stops at Kealakekua Bay, where divers from the University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo and the State‘s Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) free a tiger shark. From a net before they dive to a pristine coral reef and go about their normal business of counting yellow tangs, a popular tropical aquarium fish. The students make use of cutting-edge technology such as a multi-band echosounder for making scans of the bottom bathymetry as well as full-face masks with communications gear that allows them to talk to each other under water as well as with those in the vessel on the surface.

A special episode of Baywatch Hawaiʻi set on the Big Island? No, these are marine science students from UH Hilo monitoring aquarium fish populations for the West Hawaiʻi Aquarium Project (WHAP).

"Yes, this project would look good on a television screen, but it has honest-to-God scientific merit," said marine biologist and College of Arts and Sciences Assistant Dean Dr. Leon Hallacher. WHAP is a collaboration between UH Hilo, DAR and Washington State University. WSU‘s Dr. Brian Tissot, a former UH Hilo marine scientist, is the principal investigator. Hallacher and DAR‘s Dr. Bill Walsh are also investigators in this ongoing study of aquarium fish populations funded by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"This project is a great example of interagency cooperation," Hallacher said. "It, like many of the scientific research projects at UH Hilo, is also an excellent opportunity for our undergraduate students to use equipment and perform functions and operations that are usually done by graduate students elsewhere. It gives our students research experiences that most from other universities don‘t have when applying to graduate programs or for technical or scientific work in the public or private sector.

"The way it works is that we get the data and the data is sent to Brian for analysis. Then he writes the reports and makes the data available on the Web for other agencies to get in and see what we‘re doing. Since he‘s really interested in coral reef systems and likes working with the people here, we‘ve maintained contact over the years. This has turned out to be a really fruitful synergism between Brian, myself and Bill Walsh, and most importantly, UH Hilo undergraduates."

The WHAP study, which is in its fifth year, is to test the effectiveness of Act 306, which was enacted by the Hawaiʻi State Legislature in 1998 and which established the West Hawaiʻi Regional Fishery Management Area (WHRFMA). The major intent of the law, according to Hallacher, was to improve the management of fish resources in West Hawaiʻi by declaring a minimum of 30 percent of the West Hawaiʻi coastline as aquarium Fish Replenishment Areas (FRAs) where fish collecting is prohibited. The FRAs were closed to aquarium collecting on January 1, 2000.

"We‘re looking at three different kinds of areas," Hallacher said. "Areas that before Act 306 was implemented on January 1, 2000, were open to aquarium collecting and remain open to aquarium collecting, areas that were closed prior to Act 306 and remain closed after Act 306, and most importantly, looking at areas that were open and are now closed.

"It gives us opportunities to see what happens to an area that was open to collecting when it is closed off to collecting activities," he explained. "What are the fish populations doing? And certainly, for the fishes that are the most widely collected, like the yellow tang, they are clearly making a comeback in the areas that were formerly open and are now closed, while the areas that were open and remained open experienced no change or were down a little bit."

Specifically, the study‘s findings so far are that populations of yellow tangs, which account for the majority of collected aquarium fishes on the Big Island (76 percent in FY 2002) increased significantly (51 percent) in FRAs in 2002 as opposed to baseline levels in 1999, prior to the establishment of FRAs. The study also found that the spatial distribution of juvenile yellow tangs suggest that habitat may be an important factor influencing fish abundance and effectiveness of FRAs.

"It‘s kind of funny to call these preliminary findings after five years," Hallacher concluded. "But when you‘re dealing with populations in linear studies of fish communities, five years is not a real long time. But in the four-and-a-half, five years we‘ve been looking at this, it appears that FRAs do work.

"It may seem like a no-brainer, but nobody had the data before. And now, we‘ve got the data."

For more information on WHAP and FRAs, visit

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