You may not know a Yellow Hawaiian Tang from an Ocellarris Clownfish, but to those who do know, the alleged death of several of the reef fish in an aquarium tank at the PETCO pet store in the Maui Marketplace sparked a protest on Dec. 28 that is expected to continue into the New Year.
According Robert "Snorkel Bob" Wintner, a leader in the protest and the operator of six snorkel shops on Maui, PETCO was selected for the protest site "because PETCO is a national chain and they have influence far and wide."
Wintner also opposes the PETCO practice of training its staff to tell customers that their fish are tank-raised, a term the company claims is synonymous with "captive-bred."
Over 40 people gathered on the sidewalk of Maui Marketplace on Dairy Road in Kahului on Dec. 28 to protest the sale of Hawai‘i’s reef fish at the PETCO pet store located in the shopping center. Their goal was to pressure PETCO into halting its sales of reef fish caught in the wild as juvenile fish and raised in tanks.
"That's a lie," charged Wintner. "They cannot breed these fish in captivity," however, "they can call it 'tank raised,'" he added "That means they're catching these fish in far greater numbers as tiny juveniles and they raise them in tanks. They're still taken from the wild--they're still pulled from the food chain. A vital link is being taken for an amusement industry."
Joan Lloyd came to the protest because she believes that Maui's reefs are in dire straits. "PETCO prides itself on its code of ethics," she said. "But, if you walked into PETCO like some of us did a couple of weeks ago and find the fish are just laying there dead in the bottom of the tanks--there is nothing ethical about what they are doing."
PETCO was founded in 1965, and according to a company code of ethics statement about their buying practices, "Associates who make the decisions to buy products and supplies, or who contract services for PETCO, must make informed decisions. We are obligated to contract with vendors who supply products and services that are high quality, safe, and conform to all applicable laws."
Responding to the protests, and interviewed at the PETCO store as the protest was continuing, Annette Groscup, the PETCO marketing manager for the State of Hawai'i,, took exception to the charge that PETCO was acting in a manner that harmed the fish being bought by the company and then sold to the public.
"PETCO is committed to responsible and sustainable practices throughout our supply chain, including the live aquatic assortment, which is being protested today," Groscup said.
According to Groscup, those practices include protecting the oceans, natural reefs and marine life.
"We do sell captive-bred animals whenever and wherever possible," she added. "If captive-bred fish are not available, then we do partner with vendors who we believe are practicing responsible and sustainable harvesting methods."
Asked to define "captive-bred," Groscup replied, "Those would be fish that are bred in tanks." Asked to clarify her answer, Groscup responded "correct" when asked if "captive-bred" were fish that were hatched in a tank and not fish that had been captured from somewhere in the ocean and then raised in a tank.
Groscup said that all of the company's vendors must undergo an extensive PETCO certification process.
According to Groscup, this ensures that the vendors are following PETCO rules. Vendors must also undergo random, unannounced audits.
She also said that PETCO has no vendors at all on Maui. "There are no local aquatic vendors in Hawai'i," she added.
The aquatic life sold at the PETCO store in Kahului all comes from the Mainland.
"Again, it is all captive-bred, when and where possible," Groscup said. "If not, again, our vendors will source from those parties that practice responsible and sustainable harvesting."
When asked how far down the chain of command PETCO goes to confirm the use of responsible and sustainable practices, not only by the vendors, but also from the sources used by the vendors, Groscup responded, "I can't speak to that. I don't know."
Groscup did reveal that in response to consumer concerns, the local PETCO had made a decision to remove "some of those native-caught Hawaiian species--the Yellow Tang and the Kole Tang specifically--from our assortments."
The process of phasing them out is in place and is expected to take several weeks.
Ironically, while Maui's consumer concerns may have had an impact on one out of 950 PETCO stores, the PETCO Website is celebrating January as "Aquatics Month" with Yellow Tang on sale for $24.79 to $37.99--up to 20 percent off.