Judge lifts West Hawaii aquarium fishing injunction

An Oahu Circuit Court judge Monday lifted an injunction prohibiting the issuance or renewal of aquarium fishing permits for West Hawaii waters.

However, state officials were quick to point out that the ruling does not mean the commercial trade will commence right away in the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area (WHRFMA). The fishery management area spans the entire coastline of West Hawaii, from Upolu Point in North Kohala to Ka Lae (South Point) in Ka‘u.


Following Monday’s ruling by Judge Jeffrey P. Crabtree, the state departments of the Attorney General and Land and Natural Resources issued a joint press release stating that no aquarium fishing permits have yet been considered or issued. Further, the lifting of the injunction in the WHRFMA does not permit the immediate resumption of commercial aquarium fishing anywhere in the state.

“Today’s decision returns the management of the State’s aquatic resources in the West Hawai’i Regional Fishery Management Area back to the DLNR, now that the environmental review process for West Hawaii is complete. Today’s decision does not itself authorize any aquarium fishing. That question may now be taken up by the DLNR, which is the agency charged with managing the State’s aquatic resources,” Deputy Attorney General Melissa Goldman said in the release.

The injunction, imposed in 2017 in a case known as the “Umberger case” that challenged the acceptance of a final EIS for the trade, was lifted Monday because the environmental review pursuant to the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act is complete for the WHRFMA, the state said.

The state published a final environmental impact statement (EIS) for the practice in West Hawaii waters in its Oct. 8, 2022, issue of The Environmental Notice. The EIS was deemed statutorily approved because the Board of Land and Natural Resources, the approving agency, did not make a determination within the 30 days allotted by law. The board in 2021 deadlocked 3-3 on the revised EIS submitted by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.

Under the revised EIS, the number of commercial aquarium fishing permits issued in the WHRFMA was cut from 10 to seven and the allowable commercial catch reduced from 40 to eight species. Only yellow tang, kole, orangespine unicornfish, potter’s angelfish, brown surgeonfish, Thompson’s surgeonfish, black surgeonfish and bird wrasse would be allowed to be taken, under the plan.

A lawsuit challenging the acceptance of the revised EIS remains open. The lawsuit filed in 2021 by Earthjustice on behalf of a coalition of conservation groups, Native Hawaiian fishermen and cultural practitioners remains on appeal after an Oahu Circuit Court judge in September 2022 denied the group’s motion for summary judgment and issued a final judgment upholding the state agency’s approval.

“We’re disappointed that the Court would agree to open West Hawai‘i to aquarium collection again, especially given the serious legal deficiencies with the industry’s EIS that will be addressed on appeal, and the serious threat of environmental harm posed by opening West Hawai‘i to collection again,” said Earthjustice attorney Mahesh Cleveland in a Monday evening press release. “Fortunately, we still have recourse in the appellate courts to correct these flaws, and we plan to do everything we can in that process to avoid West Hawai‘i’s reefs from getting hammered by the trade once again.”

Earthjustice further noted the state Legislature is considering a proposal to ban commercial aquarium collection in the state outright.

Senate Bill 505, and its companion measure in the House, HB 910, as proposed would prohibit the harvesting of aquatic life for commercial aquarium purposes, regardless of the method of collection. A joint Senate Committee on Agriculture and Environment and Water and Land heard Senate Bill 505 Monday but postponed decision making until early February.

“I have watched this industry degrade our reef ecosystems for decades,” said Mike Nakachi of Kailua-Kona. “More than just damaging our public trust marine resources, the aquarium trade targets many fish that have special significance as subsistence and cultural resources. We must stop the trade from exporting these fish to die in tanks on the continent. They belong here, on our reefs, for the benefit of present and future generations in Hawai‘i.”

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