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CRITTER: Meet Hawaii’s Super Rare Flame Angelfish

At one point in time it was thought that this extremely colorful four inch long angelfish may be extinct here in Hawaii as no one had seen one for years! I have done over 3,000 dives in the Hawaiian Islands and up until last year I had never seen this rare fish here in Hawai‘i but it is quite common in parts of the Philippines and the South Pacific.

Because Hawai‘i is so isolated and far away from any other land mass many of the small colorful fish that are common on other Pacific Islands simply do not occur here. The babies or eggs of the Flame Angelfish originally had to drift in sea surface currents 3,000 miles to get to Hawai‘i. Most angelfish like calm clear water and many species grow to over a foot long but here in Hawai‘i we only have a few species of angelfish and they are all small. This is due to the strong waves and currents we have here in Hawaii with very few calm lagoons.

Scuba diving in Hawaii and seeing a Flame Angelfish is a super rare treat. When you find one of these angelfish with its stunning red, black and blue colors you won’t miss it. The problem is this fish is also very shy and they usually hide in the reef so you may only have a few seconds to enjoy their bright colors. Getting a good picture of one is almost impossible and the Hawaiian never had a name for this fish because they more than likely never saw one.

The Flame Angelfish is so rare that it often has a hard time finding a mate to breed with. In the Philippines these fish live in small groups with one male and several females but in Hawaii I have never seen two of them together but on the south side of Kaua‘i yesterday I saw a baby so we know they must be breeding here.

So far over the last 20 years diving in Hawaii I have only seen six Flame Angelfish and they were on the south side of Kaua‘i and the Kona Coast of the big island. It has been shown that the Flame Angelfish is so rare that it may mate with the more common Potters Angelfish and produce hybrids between the two species.

The Flame Angelfish is extremely popular to keep in saltwater aquariums and they can live for five to eight years in a captive setting. Most wild caught aquarium fish only live for a year or less.

Due to the longevity in captivity the Flame Angelfish sell for over $200 each and due to this value the fish is collected quickly when it shows up at a dive site! The good news is there are people now captive breeding this fish so in the future they can supply inexpensive captive produced specimens at a lower price then the ones taken out of the wild.

The Flame Angelfish feeds on plankton and small animals like shrimp. The fish hides in the reef but comes out to feed then darts back into its hiding place. I found where one was living in Kaua‘i and I went diving there three times in a row and finally got a picture of it.

You can see all of the Hawaiian angelfish in action on my webpage at www.underwater2web.com and in my YouTube movies at Underwater2web.

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Terry Lilley is a marine biologist living in Hanalei Kaua‘i and co-founder of Reef Guardians Hawai‘i, a nonprofit on a mission to provide education and resources to protect the coral reef. To donate to Reef Guardians Hawaii go to www.reefguardianshawaii.org.
Source: The Garden Island

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