Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 7, 2017

Contact:  Summer Kupau-Odo, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2436,
Rene Umberger, (808) 283-7225
Marjorie Ziegler, Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, (808) 284-3071,
Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 844-7108,  

Hawaii High Court Orders Halt to Commercial Aquarium Fishery

State Must Study Environmental Impacts Before Permitting Unlimited Extraction of Reef Fish

HONOLULU— The Hawaii Supreme Court has 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. In a unanimous decision issued Wednesday, the Supreme Court ordered a lower court to grant an injunction halting commercial aquarium collection.

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 Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources for failing to comply with Hawaii’s Environmental Policy Act and undertake environmental review before issuing dozens of aquarium collection permits annually.

In Wednesday’s decision the Supreme Court agreed with plaintiffs, reversed the decisions of the Circuit Court and Intermediate Court of Appeals denying the plaintiffs’ claims, and ordered the Circuit Court to grant an injunction prohibiting commercial aquarium collection pending compliance with the law.

“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. “The law demands and Hawaii’s people have every right to expect more from the agency charged with conserving our natural resources.”

The aquarium industry strips vast numbers of fish and other marine animals from Hawaii’s reefs and sells them outside the state; the catch may be in the millions of animals every year.

Most of the wild fish captured for aquariums are herbivorous reef-dwellers that coral reef ecosystems depend upon because they control algae growth that smothers corals. Studies have shown that reducing reef fish and shellfish diversity impairs a reef’s ability to respond to stresses or disturbances. Minimizing such impacts is vitally important as climate change and ocean warming and acidification threaten reefs. The court’s ruling requires analysis of the industry’s impacts before any commercial permits can be issued and collection allowed.

“Hawaii’s nearshore reefs and fish populations have been massively altered by commercial fish capture for the mainland household aquarium hobby,” said plaintiff Rene Umberger, who has done thousands of scuba dives on reefs around the Hawaiian Islands over the years. “We are ecstatic these reef ecosystems will finally get some reprieve.”

“Taking tropical fish from Hawaiian reefs harms that fragile ecosystem,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re happy to see the court recognize that it’s time to disclose the impacts of the aquarium trade. Maybe now people will begin to realize that we are loving these beautiful fish to death.”

“The fish we’ve traditionally caught for generations to feed our families are disappearing,” said plaintiff Ka‘imi Kaupiko. “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 Hawaii Supreme Court for putting the brakes on commercial collection before there’s no fish left for future generations.” 

Throughout the five-year legal battle, the state’s land and resources department refused to acknowledge the trade’s impacts or even seriously study it. Instead, it argued the activity was not subject to Hawaiian environmental law because the agency hands out permits to anyone who applies and pays a nominal fee — that is, that the land department lacked any discretion to prevent the reefs from being stripped by unlimited commercial extraction. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, pointing out that the state agency’s failure to exercise the authority the legislature expressly gave it does not excuse noncompliance with Hawaii’s Environmental Policy Act.

“Thanks to the Hawaii Supreme Court, our reefs now have a chance to heal,” said Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii.

Earthjustice is a nonprofit, public-interest, environmental law firm. The Mid-Pacific office opened in Honolulu in 1988 as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and has represented dozens of environmental, native Hawaiian and community organizations. Earthjustice is the only nonprofit environmental law firm in Hawaii and the Mid-Pacific, and does not charge clients for its services.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.5 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Conservation Council for Hawai‘i is a Hawaii-based, nonprofit environmental organization with over 5,500 members and supporters dedicated to protecting native Hawaiian species and ecosystems for future generations. CCH was formed in 1950.

The Humane Society of the United States is the nation’s largest animal protection organization. For more than a half-century The HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education and hands-on programs.

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