Draft EA finds no significant impact to aquarium fishing resumption

  • File-This undated file photo from Oregon State University shows a school of yellow tang off the coast of Hawaii. The waters off the Hawaii’s largest island are home to a half-million brightly-colored tropic fish that are scooped up into nets each year and flown across the globe into aquariums from Berlin to Boston. Scientists say the aquarium fishery off the Big Island is among the best managed in the world, but it has nevertheless become the focus of a fight over whether it’s ever appropriate to remove fish from reefs for people to look at and enjoy. (AP Photo/Oregon State University, Bill Walsh,File) NO SALES

  • These multi-band butterfly fish live on reefs and are a species collected by the aquarium trade. (COURTESY PHOTO/ROBERT WINTER)

HILO — Commercial aquarium fish collecting could be returning to Hawaii shores, following a five-month pause.

A draft environmental assessment released Sunday by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources anticipates no significant environmental impact from the resumption of the practice around Oahu and Hawaii Island.

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The public has until May 8 to comment on the two documents, which can be found at http://oeqc2.doh.hawaii.gov/The_Environmental_Notice/2018-04-08-TEN.pdf

Aquarium fishermen were barred from plying their trade in Hawaii waters after the state Supreme Court sided with a coalition of environmental groups who said the impact of the aquarium trade has not been properly documented. The state 1st Circuit Court, sitting as the Environmental Court, on Oct. 27 deemed all commercial aquarium fish permits invalid.

At the time, there were 233 valid commercial aquarium permits.

The draft environmental assessment, applied for by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, representing the aquarium trade, and prepared by international consultant Stantec Consulting Services, included data from 256 survey points around Hawaii Island and 228 around Oahu.

“We worked hard to find and consider all available data on the fishery so that the best science was involved in its preparation,” Robert Likins, vice president of government affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, said Monday. “We were unable to find any research which shows that the aquarium fishery is depleting the reefs, and two studies have concluded that the fishery has no significant impact on coral or the reef ecosystem.”

The analysis found collection rates of less than 1 percent of the population of 37 of the allowed aquarium fish species and less than 5 percent of the other three species around Hawaii Island. Research suggests collection of between 5 percent and 25 percent is sustainable for the various reef species, the report says.

Average collection rates for the top 20 fish off Oahu from 2000 to 2017 varied from less than 1 percent for most species to an astonishing 61 percent for the flame wrasse.

“Based on the low percentage of the overall populations collected annually by commercial aquarium fishers, which is spread throughout the year and across multiple areas, as well as the targeted take of smaller, less fecund individuals, commercial aquarium collection likely has minimal impacts on populations in general,” the Hawaii Island report states, adding, “Two studies have concluded that the aquarium fishery has no significant impact on coral or the reef ecosystem.”

The environmental groups who sued the state, forcing the moratorium, said the reports don’t go nearly far enough.

“The industry’s assessments dodge critical questions that need to be answered for the documents to comply with Hawaii’s environmental review law,” Earthjustice attorney Summer Kupau-Odo said Monday in a statement.

“For example, Hawaii law requires identification of cumulative and secondary impacts, including long-term effects, of the industry’s massive mining of reef animals. The (environmental assessments), however, do not discuss any effects beyond a one-year period,” Kupau-Odo said. “That’s a glaring and troubling legal flaw, which prevents DLNR from finding no significant impact.”

The Supreme Court last year sided with plaintiffs Rene Umberger, Mike Nakachi, Kaimi Kaupiko, Willie Kaupiko, Conservation Council for Hawaii, The Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity, all represented by Earthjustice, in a unanimous ruling that the state’s land department could not approve commercial collection permits without first complying with the environmental review mandated by Hawaii’s Environmental Policy Act.

“Of course unlimited collection of aquarium fish harms Hawaii’s reefs. For the state to conclude otherwise would be lazy and ridiculous,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to strengthen our protection of imperiled coral reefs, not trample them to stock private aquariums.”

Those who depend on aquarium fish collecting, however, are hoping the reports pave the way for the resumption of their livelihoods.

From 2000 to 2017, the aquarium fishery within the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area alone added an average of $1.4 million annually to the state’s economy, while the overall aquarium fishery within the state added an average of $2.1 million to the economy, the report states.

In 2017, an estimated 57 people were directly employed in the aquarium fishery in the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area and as many as 266 were employed statewide, it added.

“Loss of the fishery would result in the loss of income, tax revenue and jobs,” the report concludes.

“The fact is that aquarium fishers are reliant on a healthy reef for their livelihoods, so they have more reason than anyone to ensure sustainability,” Likins said. “They care for and about fish.”

Randy Fernley, owner of the Aiea-based Coral Fish Hawaii, the state’s largest tropical fish store, said the industry has indeed taken a hit. While his business is somewhat insulated by his aquarium supply trade, freshwater fish sales and import of fish from out of state, many don’t have that buffer, he said.

“I’m barely staying in business. I’ve had to lay off some people,” Fernley said of the business he’s been in for 40 years. “Whether the industry can survive or not, I don’t know.”

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The public can send comments by May 8 to the approving agency, Department of Land and Natural Resources, attention David Sakoda, 587-0104, david.sakoda@hawaii.gov 1151 Punchbowl St., Room 330, Honolulu, HI 96813.

Copies should be sent to applicant Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, on behalf of Hawaii fishers Jim Lynch, jim.lynch@klgates.com, (206) 370-6587 925 Fourth Ave., Suite 2900, Seattle, WA 98104, and consultant Stantec Consulting Services, Inc.; 2300 Swan Lake Blvd., Suite 202, Independence, IA 50644 Terry VanDeWalle, (319) 334-3755, terry.vandewalle@stantec.com .