The Hawaiian name for this fish means “yellow leaf,” and they only occur in large numbers in Hawaii. Sometimes these fish can be seen in such large schools that people can see them from the beach and it looks like gold flowing over the coral reef.
This eight-inch-long fish likes to live in finger corals, and Hawaii has a large population of this coral species. The baby yellow tangs look pretty much like the adults other then they have larger fins that they put up in defense if a predator is close by.
You can see these stunning fish in large schools of a hundred or more, but also commonly see them as one or two pairs. It is thought that these fish can live well over 10 years old, which is a long time for a small fish.
You never want to grab lau‘ipala because it is part of the surgeonfish family, so the small white spine at the base of the tail is like a little sharp knife. If a person or predator grabs it, the sharp spine can cut them just like a surgeon’s knife! The yellow tang sleeps by itself in cracks in the reef at night, and is often eaten by moray eels which do not seem to mind getting poked by the sharp spine.
The yellow tang is the most popular exported Hawaiian fish in the aquarium trade, and one of the most often sold fish worldwide! This has caused the wild populations in some areas to dramatically decline.
In recent years the state of Hawaii has either banned the collecting of aquarium fish or restricted the numbers that can be taken off of the coral reef. These rules seem to be working, as the populations of yellow tangs seems to be stabilized and even growing in some places.
At popular fishing and snorkeling reefs like Tunnels reef on Kauai I had not seen even one yellow tang for many years. But I did a dive there just a few days ago and saw 12 new babies! So that was a good sign that they are coming back. People come from all around the world to see our yellow tangs, and that supports the dive community and ecological-based economy.
You can see some great movies of lau‘ipala in the video “The World’s Guide to Hawaiian Reef Fish” at www.underwater2web.com. Funds can be donated to the nonprofit Reef Guardians Hawaii at www.reefguardianshawaii.org to help us study and protect this beautiful Hawaiian fish!
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Terry Lilley is a marine biologist and Hanalei resident. His websites include underwater2web.com and www.gofundme.com/5urrm4zw.
Source: The Garden Island