Recreational aquarium collection permits voided

  • Yellow tang aquarium fish swim in a tank at a store in Aiea, Oahu. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy, file)

KAILUA-KONA — Conservation groups hope there will be plenty of fish in the sea following another legal victory against the Department of Land and Resources.

The First Circuit Court, sitting as the Environmental Court, ruled that all unexpired recreational aquarium collection permits are void.


The April 12 ruling invalidates around 131 permits. Each permit authorized the recreational capture of almost 2,000 fish each year for a total of around 250,000 fish per year.

“We’re happy those permits are voided because they were issued illegally,” said Summer Kupau-Odo, Earthjustice attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “DLNR didn’t even bother to ask what each applicant intended to do with the permit. It could have been a rare species or from a distressed reef. We don’t know because DLNR didn’t care to find out.”

Kapau-Odo added that though there may be a cap of 2,000 fish per recreational aquarium collection permit, there isn’t a law that limits the number of the permits issued by the state.

The permits were deemed illegal, the court ruled, due to their failure to comply with The Hawaii Environmental Policy Act and examine environmental consequences before issuing permits.

The now-voided permits were issued automatically via an online process. Applicants were not required to describe the fish they planned to catch, how many, or where they intended to collect the animals.

The ruling was the latest win for Earthjusice, an environmental law firm that represented plaintiffs Rene Umberger, Mike Nakachi, Ka’imi Kaupiko, Willie Kaupiko, Conservation Council for Hawaii, The Humane Society of the United States, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The battles began in 2012, when the plaintiffs sued the DLNR for failing to comply with the Hawaii EPA and study environmental impacts before issuing aquarium collection permits.

In September 2017, The Hawaii Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs, ruling an environmental review necessary before the DNLR can issue commercial aquarium collection permits. After the September ruling, State Circuit Judge Jeffrey P. Crabtree terminated and canceled all fine mesh net permits.

The Circuit Court in October 2017 declared all existing commercial permits void and ordered an injunction. The injunction prohibited the department from issuing new commercial permits until it complied with the EPA.

On Jan. 5, the DLNR announced an indefinite halt to all commercial aquarium fishing throughout West Hawaii pending results of an environmental review. The decision to prohibit commercial aquarium fishing occurred when the Supreme Court’s ruling was applied to an existing department rule stating a permit is required to engage in the fishing.

Until the April 12 decision, the legality of recreational aquarium collection permits remained in question.

Now it’s out of the courts and up to the DLNR to review and revamp the aquarium fishing permits.

“It’s in the DNLR’s hands to study the impact of both recreational and commercial permits,” Kapau-Odo said.

“What they need I think requires an overhaul of aquarium fish permitting in Hawaii. Right now DLNR is just letting the industry run its show. It needs to embrace its legal duty to conserve our resources to come up with a program that takes into account all stakeholders,” she added.

In response to the Supreme Court’s rulings, the DLNR is developing environmental assessments (EAs). DLNR has submitted the documents to the Office of Environmental Quality Control for dissemination and public comment.

“If significant impacts are found in the EA, then an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will be necessary as required in Chapter 343,” DLNR said in a statement to West Hawaii Today.

Aquarium fish collectors have prepared two separate EAs, one for the aquarium fishery on the Big Island and another for the aquarium fishery on Oahu.

No data is being collected on the other islands, as there is no significant aquarium fish collection on Kauai, Molokai, Maui, or Lanai at this time.

Results from the EAs have been met with both scrutiny and approval.

Some believe that the EAs lack the depth and analysis necessary to draw conclusions about the environmental impact of aquarium fishing practices.

“Hawaii law requires identification of cumulative and secondary impacts, including long-term effects, of the industry’s massive mining of reef animals. The EAs, however, do not discuss any effects beyond a one-year period. That’s a glaring and troubling legal flaw, which prevents DLNR from finding no significant impact,” said Kupau-Odo in a press release from the Humane Society of the United States.

But others think the EAs provide adequate proof that Hawaii’s aquarium fishing practices are sustainable.

David Tarnas, former state representative, is one who finds it sustainable. The former representative crafted legislation creating marine protection areas around 20 years ago.

“The data has shown, in my opinion, that the impact of aquarium fish collection, I find acceptable. And it is a sustained fishery because of the marine protection areas established on the coast.”


According to Tarnas, also essential to making the practice sustainable are species specific restrictions and mooring buoys not dropping anchor, both of which result in damage to marine life. Tarnas said both of the preceding measures are set in place in West Hawaii.

“I am eager to see the results of the public comments of the draft EA,” said Tarnas.

  1. Graystash April 17, 2018 1:49 am

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you !!!!!!!

  2. antifaHI April 17, 2018 6:04 am

    Appreciate this ruling. But why let the DLNR do their EAs?!? They are obviously biased and have shown in the past plenty of times that they are incapable of doing their job.

    1. fishman2 April 17, 2018 6:18 am

      Wrong. A private third party environmental company was hired to do the EA, not DLNR.

      1. Gwen Ilaban April 17, 2018 9:33 am

        As the article, states, “Hawaii law requires identification of cumulative and secondary impacts,
        including long-term effects, of the industry’s massive mining of reef
        animals. The EAs, however, do not discuss any effects beyond a one-year
        period. That’s a glaring and troubling legal flaw, which prevents DLNR
        from finding no significant impact,” said Kupau-Odo in a press release
        from the Humane Society of the United States. Now, DLNR FORGET the EA and DO an EIS!!! Please! DLNR, do it right. Prepare an EIS!

        1. fishman2 April 17, 2018 10:47 am

          So if you want DLNR to do an EIS themselves you would rant about how they cannot be trusted to do an unbiased report. It is bad enough to make every agency and private group to do an EA for every single thing they do. Now you want an EIS for every single thing that gets done? Do you have any idea what an EIS costs? It makes no sense unless you want to stop everything, and there are plenty of people like that.

          Please do not make the mistake thinking that the Humane Society of the U.S. is the same one that takes care of animals. Look it up and see the difference between the two extremely different entities.

          1. antifaHI April 18, 2018 7:11 am

            If the DLNR is paying or directing a third party then it is not an independent study. Yes, the world has changed and EIS and EAs are part of living on an increasingly crowded and fragile planet. We also buckle up in our cars and demand healthier food.

          2. fishman2 April 18, 2018 7:44 am

            So who do you think should pay for an EIS? Are you volunteering? EIS should only be done if there is a risk of significant impact. Otherwise the cost of doing frivolous multi year EIS studies on everything would be insane. Most of the time people push for EIS because they cost a lot and they hope to bankrupt the project before it ever gets off the ground. The whole point of an EA is to prevent the anti-everything group from stopping everything.

          3. antifaHI April 18, 2018 7:58 pm

            Coral reefs and their inhabitants are not for you to plunder. Your business model is based on taking from natural resources belonging to everyone. If the aquarium fishery is so sustainable, why aren’t their any reefs left to plunder in Oahu or other more populous places of the state? Yeah, I agree, no more studies: Just make it illegal to take Hawaiian fish for decorative purposes.

          4. Zachary German April 19, 2018 9:54 am

            But it is legal to catch kill and eat those same fish?

          5. antifaHI April 20, 2018 5:54 am

            You are eating Nemo? ROFL

      2. Big Mac April 18, 2018 1:13 pm

        Who paid for it?

        1. fishman2 April 18, 2018 2:08 pm

          Don’t know who paid. Probably DLNR. What does it matter?

          1. Big Mac April 18, 2018 4:10 pm

            It matters. I worked in an industry where disputes were resolved before a court or arbitrator and it was common knowledge that we hired the expert to write a report that was skewed in our favor and the other side would hire a consultant who would write a report skewed in their favor. We would often meet somewhere in the middle but not always. In meetings with these consultants it was never spoken about openly but everyone knew what was expected and who was paying the bill, and possibly future referrals.

          2. fishman2 April 18, 2018 4:21 pm

            Sounds like you are assuming the report is bias. I ain’t buying it. Looks like the science is pretty good to me. There is science on one side and emotion on the other. We have heard from the emotional side and it is weak at best.

          3. Big Mac April 19, 2018 10:10 am

            Any you are a fish collector, I’m guessing?

          4. fishman2 April 19, 2018 10:16 am

            I am certainly not a collector and never have been.

  3. Tom April 17, 2018 8:54 am

    About time! There needs to be an audit of why DNLR failed in its job and some reforms needed (if not people fired). Much damage has already been done!

  4. For the Fishes April 17, 2018 8:56 am

    The empty shell EAs were paid for by PIJAC, the mainland pet industry lobby arm, that hired Stantec to do the assessments. Stantec, the designer and developer of the Keystone Pipeline, is notorious for it’s total disregard for the voices of native peoples and for the environment. The Keystone pipeline has spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil in the U.S. and per a Reuters story: “Keystone pipeline has leaked substantially more oil, and more
    often, in the United States than indicated in risk assessments the
    company provided to regulators before the project began operating in
    2010, according to documents reviewed by Reuters.”

    The Stantec assessments of the impacts of the aquarium trade to Hawaii’s reefs and marine life are equally inadequate and simply cannot be trusted.

    PIJAC and Stantec involvement in this has finally exposed the true profiteers of the strip-mining of Hawaii reefs — not local families as the trade would have you believe — but mainland corporate interests with one goal in mind — make money off Hawaii.

    1. KonaLife April 17, 2018 1:56 pm

      Maybe you might be more persuasive if you identified the parts of the EA that you believe are factually incorrect and/or based on weak assumptions. Attacking the source without addressing the substance is a classic argument strategy, but, to be honest, it’s a bit removed from EA and the studies on which it is based. The EA refers to a few showing studies showing no harm. What do you have? Genuine question; I’d like to see both sides of the issue instead of guilt-by-association-rhetoric.

    2. fishman2 April 18, 2018 11:35 am

      How do you figure this company other than making a small amount of $ doing this EA is making money off Hawaii?? I certainly don’t think these large consulting companies are in the business of selling aquarium fish on the mainland.

      1. For the Fishes April 18, 2018 11:55 am

        Well, you’re wrong about that fishman2. PIJAC members (like Petco/LiveAquaria) are exactly in the business of selling Hawaii’s yellow tangs, snowflake, dragon, and zebra eels, hermit crabs, leaf scorpionfish, frogfish, flame wrasses, butterflyfishes, etc…to mainland hobbyists. One long-time trade member actually had the courage to write that the excessive losses of wild marine fishes, where virtually none (<1%) live more than a year in captivity, are not "economically" excessive (whatever that means) because "the livestock are necessary to drive purchases of lucrative dry-goods." We all know what that means.

        1. fishman2 April 18, 2018 12:04 pm

          Petco etc may be in the business of selling fish but PIJAC is not. That prattle about how all these fish die has been refuted by scientific evaluation at universities. But then you probably won’t believe that either.

  5. John R Fernley April 17, 2018 9:26 am

    The aquarium industry is sustainable and it will be proven once the EA is released.

  6. Lindy brown April 17, 2018 12:38 pm

    Humm, so For the Fishes is concerned about “mainland lobbying” but has teamed with Earthjustice, Center for Biological Diversity, and Humane Society of the United States. These are huge, mainland intities.

  7. Zachary German April 19, 2018 10:00 am

    The Hawaiian fishery is one of the most studied and scrutinized fisheries in the world. It has been and will continue to be shown that ornamental collection is sustainable. The environmental impact on the reef or its fishes by commercial ornamental collection is tiny when compared to development, tourism and agriculture. Why don’t you try to ban something that will actually have an impact.
    Way to pick on the smallest kid.

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