(NaturalNews) Three out of every four species of fish in Hawaii's coral reefs are in danger of extinction from overfishing, according to a report from researchers at the Oceanic Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and presented at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"Everything hasn't collapsed yet," said researcher Alan Friedlander. "But we need to protect healthy reefs, because it's so much easier and safer to conserve now than it is to try to rebuild later."
No comprehensive population surveys had previously been conducted on Hawaiian reef fish, but local and international agencies had assumed that overfishing was not a problem based on their estimates of fish take. The problem, according to the federal researchers, is that such estimates vastly underestimated the scale of subsistence fishing on the Hawaiian Islands.
"Overfishing is often disputed in Hawaii and elsewhere because catch data is underreported or spotty," Friedlander said.
Friedlander and colleagues pored over census data to determine how many fish were actually being taken by small-boat subsistence fishermen, and found that the numbers were on average twice as high as those found in government and international reports. In some cases, they were 17 times higher.
The researchers then incorporated the subsistence data into existing data on commercial fish catches. Once the data were combined, the researchers were able to determine that overall fish catches in the Hawaiian reefs had dropped by 54 to 86 percent since the 1950s.
Finally, the researchers used diving gear to actually count fish populations at reefs around both Hawaii's more populated islands (such as Oahu, Maui and the Big Island) and around the remote northwestern islands, which are rarely fished. They found that 75 percent of all fish species around the main islands had lower levels compared to fish at other locations; putting them in imminent danger of extinction. Another 11 percent of fish species were at levels lower than those considered healthy.
Friedlander warned that fish extinction could have dire nutritional consequences for Hawaiian islanders.
"Probably in Hawaii, more than anywhere else in the United States, people rely on fish to feed themselves and their families," he said.