Maui News

Hawai‘i Court Rules Commercial Aquarium Collection Without Environmental Review is Illegal

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Aquarium fish. File photo by Wendy Osher.

The state’s environmental court ruled Friday that the continued extraction of aquarium fish from Hawaiʻi’s reefs without first reviewing the environmental and cultural impacts, is illegal.

The environmental law firm, Earthjustice says the ruling shuts a loophole created after a landmark 2017 decision by the Hawai‘i Supreme Court mandated public disclosure and analysis of the aquarium pet trade’s effects in Hawai‘i.

No permits had been issued since the 2017 decision, though aquarium fishing using other gear, considered less optimal for aquarium fishing but not regulated under Hawaiʻi law, continued.  The firm alleged that the actions resulted in the extraction of more than half a million marine animals from Hawai‘i reefs over the past three years.


“Today’s court ruling rejected that false distinction and made clear that Hawai‘i’s environmental impact statement laws apply to all aquarium collection, regardless of the extraction equipment used,” according to Earthjustice.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources issued a statement this afternoon saying the state is taking “immediate steps” to comply with the new order.

“Immediately, the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources will not renew or issue new CMLs without a condition prohibiting the taking of marine life for aquarium fishing purposes until Chapter 343 environmental review is completed,” according to department officials.  DLNR reports that a total 41 commercial marine licensees of the approximate 3,000 CMLs currently report aquarium catch.


According to DLNR, the court declined to issue an injunction at this time stopping aquarium fishing under existing CMLs, which are issued for a year at a time.  “The court recognized that an immediate ban would ’cause economic hardship to aquarium fishers, their families, employees, and vendors’ particularly now, during the pandemic,” the department noted in response to the ruling.

Willie Kaupiko, Ka‘imi Kaupiko, Mike Nakachi, For the Fishes, and the Center for Biological Diversity, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit in January to enforce the letter and intent of the courts’ prior rulings and ensure that all aquarium collection complies with the environmental review process required under the Hawai‘i Environmental Policy Act.

“These reefs are vital to our way of life and to the health of our entire Paeʻāina [Hawaiian Islands],” said Kaʻimi Kaupiko, who regularly fishes with his family in Miloli‘i, the state’s last traditional Hawaiian fishing village.


“After all this time trying to protect our resources, we are thankful for the court’s decision to do what is pono [right]. We must all do our part to take care of Hawaiʻi and to sustain our home for generations to come. But wala‘au [talking/words] is not enough. The state has work to do,” said Willie Kaupiko, a Native Hawaiian fisherman from Miloliʻi.

According to the group, the animals targeted by the aquarium trade are primarily herbivorous reef-dwellers that serve unique functions in the coral reef ecosystem, such as helping to control algae growth.

“With this ruling, the Court confirms what should have been clear in the first place—that the aquarium pet trade requires thorough environmental review, and not just different schemes to keep doing the same thing,” said Earthjustice attorney Mahesh Cleveland. “Resorting to new techniques won’t get you off the hook. If you want to take fish from our waters to profit from the trade, you need to examine and disclose the environmental impacts first. Anything less would be an injustice to people that rely on healthy and diverse reef ecosystems today, and even more so to our future generations.”

DLNR Director Suzanne Case pointed to several high-profile aquarium fishing enforcement busts on Hawai‘i island this year that were the result of tips from concerned community members. These cases are still in the courts and DLNR civil violation systems.  In the meantime, DLNR is encouraging anyone who suspects illegal aquarium fishing to report it immediately to the DLNR 24-hour violation hotline or via the free DLNRTip app. “We continue to take illegal aquarium fishing seriously.  We want people to continue to report any illegal activity,” Case said.


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