For a while now the state’s commercial aquarium fishing trade has been looking pretty solid. Sure, earlier this year both houses of the Hawaii Legislature passed SB 1240, which would have gradually phased out new aquarium collecting permits, but Governor David Ige, following the strong recommendation from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), vetoed it (an action that prompted Robert “Snorkel Bob” Wintner to set up his own Super PAC REEFPAC).
But then last week the Hawaii Supreme Court hit the state’s aquarium fishing trade–and the DLNR–with a pretty major blow. One that puts another win in environmental law firm Earthjustice’s corner.
“Today, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court sided with citizens and conservation groups in their fight to protect the State’s coral reefs from the aquarium industry’s unlimited collection and sale of reef fish and other wildlife,” stated a Sept. 6 Earthjustice news release. “In 2012, plaintiffs Rene Umberger, Mike Nakachi, Ka‘imi Kaupiko, Willie Kaupiko, Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, The Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity–all represented by Earthjustice–sued the State Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) for failing to comply with Hawai‘i’s Environmental Policy Act (HEPA) and undertake environmental review before issuing dozens of aquarium collection permits annually. In its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court agreed with plaintiffs, reversed the decisions of the Circuit Court and Intermediate Court of Appeals denying plaintiffs’ claims, and ordered the Circuit Court to grant an injunction prohibiting commercial aquarium collection pending compliance with the law.”
Ouch! According to Earthjustice, the DLNR has long taken an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude towards the commercial aquarium industry. In fact, the law firm says the DLNR has (until now) argued that HEPA didn’t apply to the industry because anyone who applies and pays the standard fee can get a permit. This argument apparently didn’t fly with the Hawaii Supreme Court.
“The justices unanimously agree DLNR’s practice of blindly doling out aquarium collection permits without studying environmental impacts is illegal,” said Earthjustice attorney Summer Kupau-Odo in the Sept. 6 news release. “The law demands and Hawai‘i’s people have every right to expect more from the agency charged with conserving our natural resources.”
What’s more, Earthjustice says the aquarium industry has long harmed both Hawaii’s fragile reefs and native Hawaiian fishing practices.
“The fish we’ve traditionally caught for generations to feed our families are disappearing,” said plaintiff Kaimi Kaupiko in the Earthjustice news release. “Collectors take fish we eat–like pāku‘iku‘i (Achilles tang) and kole–and by taking yellow tang, they disrupt the ecosystem so that other fish, like uhu, won’t come in. We mahalo the Hawai‘i Supreme Court for putting the brakes on commercial collection before there’s no fish left for future generations.”
For it’s part, officials with the DLNR issued a terse statement on Sept. 7 in response to the ruling, in which they basically say that they had no clue that thing they’ve been doing forever is actually illegal. Here it is, in full:
“The Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has long issued annual commercial and recreational aquarium fish permits, pursuant to HRS §188-31 and administrative rules, authorizing the use of fine meshed traps or nets to take aquatic life for aquarium purposes,” stated the DLNR news release. “On Wednesday, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court ruled that aquarium collection using fine meshed traps or nets is subject to the environmental review procedures provided in the Hawai‘i Environmental Policy Act (HEPA). The issue has been remanded to the circuit court for further proceedings. In light of the ruling, until further guidance is received, DLNR has discontinued issuance of new aquarium fish permits and renewal of existing aquarium fish permits.”
Photo of yellow tang in the Thousand Oaks Library aquarium: Howcheng/Wikimedia Commons