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Advocates celebrate aquarium fishing ban

Judge says commercial aquarium collection needs environmental review

Yellow tangs are popular fish taken by aquarium collectors. Environmental groups and marine wildlife advocates applaud a court ruling this week emphasizing and clarifying that all commercial aquarium fishing is now banned in Hawaii until the industry has completed the environmental review process. MEL MALINOWSKI photo

Environmental groups and marine wildlife advocates rejoiced after a court ruling this week made it clear that all commercial aquarium fishing is now banned in Hawaii without environmental review.

“There has been much relief and celebration amongst those who have long fought for this moment,” said Rene Umberger, founder and executive director of For The Fishes, a Kihei-based group that works to restore and protect fish populations and coral reef habitats. “Given the dire impacts of climate change on Hawaii’s reefs, with the majority of them projected to be lost within the next few decades, this is monumentally important.”

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources said Thursday that none of the current commercial marine licenses can be used for commercial aquarium collection, which has generally been focused on Oahu and Hawaii island.

Anyone who takes marine life for commercial purposes must have a license issued by DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources. DAR is in the process of notifying all current license holders that aquarium harvest is prohibited without a review to ensure they comply with the Hawaii Environmental Protection Act.

Represented by nonprofit environmental law firm Earthjustice, the plaintiffs — For the Fishes, Willie Kaupiko, Ka’imi Kaupiko, Mike Nakachi and the Center for Biological Diversity — appeared in court Tuesday with a motion to enforce a Nov. 27 ruling that declared DLNR’s issuance of commercial licenses for aquarium fish collection invalid and illegal for failure to comply with the state environmental review law.

“The court has confirmed, yet again, what community members and environmental advocates have been saying all along,” said Earthjustice attorney Kylie Wager Cruz in a news release. “Exploitation of public marine resources for private profit cannot happen without first conducting environmental review.”

The 2017 Hawaii Supreme Court decision required that environmental studies for state-issued commercial aquarium permits are required for anyone who takes marine life for commercial purposes.

However, the plaintiffs alleged that the DLNR allowed the industry to continue poaching with their commercial marine licenses, which resulted in “hundreds of thousands of animals being harvested for the trade despite the court-ordered moratorium on commercial collection,” according to an Earthjustice news release.

Umberger has been working with many groups to protect reefs and marine life from the aquarium trade since 2007 after reading a 1998 report that said aquarium collecting was a major cause of coral reef degradation in Hawaii, she said.

One of the biggest challenges with implementing rules governing aquarium fish collection is the “lack of resources,” she added. About 98 percent of the fish taken for aquarium purposes are for the pet trade outside of Hawaii, and most of the fish are herbivores.

“Herbivores may be the most important group of fishes to the survival of Hawaii’s reefs in the face of climate change,” she said Wednesday. “They are so important that DLNR has asked fishers to reduce or stop taking them.”

This week, Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Crabtree ruled that all commercial aquarium fishing is now banned in Hawaii unless and until the aquarium fishing industry has an approved environmental impact statement.

“DLNR has faithfully implemented and enforced the court ruling as it was written and interpreted by the department,” DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison said. “The two recent court rulings have provided further clarification on the court ruling and DLNR is taking measures immediately to incorporate those changes.”

The DLNR said that this law applies to all kinds of take of aquatic resources, including commercial aquarium collection. More than 3,000 commercial marine licenses are outstanding, according to the department, and 41 license holders reported aquarium catch in 2020.

“Commercial aquarium collection has been controversial for many years in Hawaii,” DLNR Chairwoman Suzanne Case said in a news release Tuesday. “Various court orders over the years have narrowed the allowed scope of the industry. The DLNR has faithfully implemented those orders and will now faithfully implement this ruling completely banning the industry without an approved EIS.”

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.

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