‘The Dark Hobby’ of Fish Collection

Paula Fouce’ documentary exposes a savage problem lurking underneath one of the seemingly most benign of pastimes.

One assumes that the tranquil fish in a tropical aquarium were bred somewhere, maybe in a bucket in the back of the store. Sadly, no.

The problem seems to have started during the initiation of jet service to the South Pacific, circa 1964. Since then, divers have collected the tiny colorful fish from tropical reefs; their tools include vacuums, “tickle sticks” and hypodermic needles. In extreme  cases, they blast reefs with dynamite to gather the stunned fish that float to the surface, or squirt cyanide to knock them out of their hiding places; the cyanide stops the air long enough for a harvester to scoop up knocked-out fish. (We get the anecdote that these cyanide-fishers in the Philippines can be picked out of a crowd — their eyes are yellow from jaundice, as the poison attacks their livers.)

Once captured and caught in a plastic bag, the fish need to be kept alive to get to where the money is. A fish in a plastic bag might end up absorbing its own wastes, which can make it sick. So sometimes, during transportation, tropical fish are deprived of food. They can arrive at their destinations with their ribs show. The rough methods used in transporting these fish leaves a body count. We see a tarp full of seized dead Moorish idols, angelfish, and clownfish. This is one tough film for fans of Finding Nemo  

Due to political clout and money, it was hard to chase these so-called harvesters away from Hawaiian reefs. The Dark Hobby describes the challenges at all three branches of state and county governments by opponents of these reef fishermen — none who feel like talking to the camera. Several years ago, the Hawaiian government prevaricated and issued a “White List” of fish that it was legal to take — but opponents noted that the list read more like a menu than an anti-poaching law; barely any fish were protected on it. When the trade was at last outlawed in Maui, harvesters crossed the county line, as it were, and went to work on the Kona coast of the Big Island.

Opponents to this harvest include kapunas (traditional elders) such as Kimokeo Kaphulehua, tattooed and wearing a haku crown of leaves. A small-town Big Island mayor speaks out, as does The Dark Hobby’s executive producer, Robert Wintner. The genial Wintner, known as “Snorkel Bob,” is an author and a marine photographer. He’s a familiar figure to Hawaii’s tourists, thanks to his flamboyant advertisements. One can pose for photographs inside the mouth of a fiberglass great white shark standing outside his snorkel and swim fins rental shops.

As a lover of reefs, Wintner also has a vested interest in making sure that there’s tropical fish around when the visitors come to see them. I’m no expert, but the decline in the reef fish population is visible even to a person who has just showed up a few times with rented Snorkel Bob gear at the Kihei coast, over the course of 15 years. In Dark Hobby, there is literally a title crawl’s worth of reasons the world’s reefs are suffering — from climate change to the effect of chemicals in the sunscreen of swimmers. One didn’t think part of the vanishing was the great sucking sound leading from tropical reefs right to the aquarium in your dentist’s lobby.

Even fish returned to the ocean cause trouble. Take lionfish. No one would blame a collector for getting a lionfish — they’re sexy and dangerous with those fascinating lacy fins that they wave like war banners. But they’ll eat anything, and many a fish-fancier found this out when they discovered their lionfish was the last one left in their tank. More than one frustrated aquarium owner dumped their voracious pet off a pier. Now the Atlantic has swarms of lionfish, all the way from America’s eastern seaboard to the coast of Brazil. 

Part of the argument in The Dark Hobby is that the aquarium itself is a construct — a confinement of a lot of different fish who’d never be introduced to each other in real life.  

Here are high-church anti-cruelty arguments against the live tropical fish trade. Ben Williamson of PETA weighs in on the subject of whether aquariums are cruel and unusual punishment for fish. The older Hawaiians believe that gathering fish in all seasons isn’t pono (kosher), and that there are fish gods that get offended. Taylor Nicole Dean, a YouTube influencer, talks about her own fish collection. You have to watch one of her videos to hear that she was so overwhelmed with the death of one of her fish that she had to have a funeral to cope with the loss.

Spiritual and emotional arguments aside, we have scientific evidence of the critical importance of these fish. They tend the coral reefs, themselves so vital to the releasing of oxygen. These delightfully hued fish trim the algae on the growing coral, as well as cleaning the skins and teeth of larger fish. Improvements in underwater filming technology means we’re always learning more about the subtleties of piscine intelligence. Fish have been around about 450 times longer than humans. Gobis, tiny fish that they are, have the ability to map terrain. It wouldn’t be bad if The Dark Hobby got a little bit of My Octopus’ Teacher’s gravy on its potatoes, regarding the consideration of undersea life, and the way humans continue to underestimate it.

And while there’s generally little good news in ocean studies, there’s evidence that some reefs aren’t too far gone to come back. We visit “Jardins de la Reina,” a once-damaged reef in Cuba, rejuvenated by Fidel Castro’s ban on shark fishing. Now there are apex predators aplenty, maintaining the health of the reef; “Snorkel Bob” goes to photograph it, studying the small fish as the sharks study him.

Exposing the problem of reef depredation is a more serious matter than the problem of Fouce’s bland filmmaking style. Though the publicists mention Blackfish and The Cove, there’s little element of suspense here as there were in those two documentaries about seaside atrocities. It’s the case that people who take these fish don’t want to be observed. At the beginning of Dark Hobby there’s some absolute Thunderball stuff, with two scuba divers struggling; a tropical fish “harvester” snatches the regulator out of the mouth of a reef protector, who was trying to photograph the poacher as he takes the fish.

The interviewees suggest alternatives to this removal of fish, such as paying off the so-called harvesters or sending them off to school to become marine biologists. They’d have a knack: they’re good divers and they know their fish. As Cory Hearst, an ex-employee of a tropical fish store says, maybe such shops should be selling the kind of fish that reproduce easily in captivity, as opposed to ones that have to be extracted and flown 5,000 or more miles to live a short life under glass.

Today’s 4K TV sets are seemingly always tuned to footage of tropical fish when you go past the showroom at Costco. Connect such a set to one of several YouTube submerged reef cams, run in various oceans by various scientific institutions. One could receive all the blood-pressure lowering effect of watching tropical fish, while leaving them right where they belong.

Now streaming.

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