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DLNR rules all aquarium fishing banned in Hawaii without environmental review

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / 2010
                                An aquarium installation at Bishop Museum Science Center featuring yellow tangs swim in a 225-gallon tank.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / 2010

    An aquarium installation at Bishop Museum Science Center featuring yellow tangs swim in a 225-gallon tank.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources on Tuesday declared all aquarium collections banned in Hawaii unless an environmental review process is completed.

DLNR took the action after Environmental Court Judge Jeffrey Crabtree on Tuesday ruled once again in favor of Earthjustice, a nonprofit representing plaintiffs in a case that has stretched back several years. Earthjustice this week alleged that DLNR had “improperly sidestepped” a Nov. 27 Circuit Court order invalidating commercial marine licenses used for aquarium fish collection by allowing it to continue for those with existing licenses.

Crabtree confirmed his earlier ruling indeed invalidated all commercial marine licenses in existence.

“The court has confirmed — yet again — what community members and environmental advocates have been saying all along,” said Earthjustice attorney Kylie Wager Cruz in a news release. “Exploitation of public marine resources for private profit cannot happen without first conducting environmental review.”

Late last year, Judge Crabtree had ruled in favor of Earthjustice in its suit against the state alleging that DLNR was violating the law by allowing aquarium fishers to continue extracting hundreds of thousands of marine animals from Hawaii’s reefs without a required environmental review as long as they had a license and were not using illegal fine-mesh nets.

The court ruled that an environmental review was required regardless of the gear being used.

At the time, DLNR announced it would no longer renew or issue new commercial marine licenses for aquarium fishing without a required environmental review, but allowed those with existing licenses to continue so as not to cause economic hardship.

On Tuesday, DLNR clarified that even those with existing commercial marine licenses could no longer collect aquarium fish. DLNR said it had issued more than 3,000 commercial marine licenses, and that 41 of that total had reported aquarium catch in 2020.

The ruling, DLNR said, does not affect other types of commercial fishing or taking of marine life.

“Commercial aquarium collection has been controversial for many years in Hawaii,” said DLNR Chair Suzanne Case in a news release. “Various court orders over the years have narrowed the allowed scope of the industry. The DLNR has faithfully implemented those orders and will now faithfully implement this ruling completely banning the industry without an approved EIS.”

Earthjustice, however, said it has had to return to court time and time again to ensure DLNR is following orders dating back more than three years.

This latest ruling came after Earthjustice, a nonprofit representing Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners Willie Kaupiko, Ka‘imi Kaupiko, Mike Nakachi, For the Fishes, and the Center for Biological Diversity, returned to court this week with a motion to enforce the Nov. 27 ruling.

That ruling was supposed to close a loophole that existed despite a landmark ruling made by the state’s highest court in 2017 that commercial aquarium collection permits should be subject to review requirements under the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act.

DLNR at that time interpreted the ruling differently, and allowed commercial aquarium fishing in all areas – except West Hawaii — to continue as long as illegal fine-mesh nets, the primary tool for aquarium fishing, were not being used.

The court ruled that an environmental review was required regardless of the kind of gear used by license holders.

DLNR said its Division of Aquatic Resources was in the process of notifying all commercial marine license holders of the court’s latest ruling.

“We are thankful that the Judge once again upheld the letter and intent of our environmental laws, even though it doesn’t make sense that we should have to keep going back to court over and over again to say the same thing,” said Miloli‘i fisherman and educator Ka‘imi Kaupiko in a statement. “Hopefully, this time the state will fulfill its kuleana. ‘Nuff already with the loopholes.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are involved in the environmental review for West Hawaii and Oahu aquarium permits, and played a key role in a string of aquarium poaching busts by state enforcement officers along Hawaii island’s Kona Coast over the last year.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources last year rejected the final environmental impact statement submitted by a group of fishers seeking permits to collect aquarium fish in West Hawaii. An environmental review for Oahu is still pending, with a statement expected by the end of the month.

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