For Immediate Release, November 30, 2020


Mahesh Cleveland, (808) 599-2436, x 6621,
Rene Umberger, (808) 283-7225,
Mike Nakachi, (808) 640-3871,
Maxx Phillips, (808) 284-0007,

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

Court Closes Loophole Allowing Industry to Extract Over 500,000 Marine Animals From Hawai‘i Reefs Since 2017 Without Regulation

HONOLULU— Hawaiʻi’s Department of Land and Natural Resources violated the law by allowing the aquarium trade to continue extracting hundreds of thousands of marine animals from Hawaiʻi’s reefs without first reviewing the environmental and cultural impacts, the state’s environmental court ruled Friday. The ruling shuts a loophole the agency 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.

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. Today’s victory in court will stop the reckless collection of marine animals that threatens to empty Hawai‘i reefs.

“We are relieved that our reefs can finally rest while the agency examines the industry’s harmful effects. 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.

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. Studies have shown that reducing diversity of reef fish and shellfish affects a reef’s ability to respond to stresses or disturbances. This is vitally important as reefs come under serious pressure from global threats, including climate change and ocean acidification.

In response to the landmark 2017 decision by the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, the state’s resource department allowed the industry to sidestep the court rulings and carry on without environmental review, resulting in the extraction of more than half a million marine animals from Hawai‘i reefs over the past three years.

In creating its loophole, the department claimed that the 2017 court decision applied only to the use of so-called “fine-meshed” nets, then proceeded to give the aquarium industry free rein to continue taking marine life using any other type of equipment. Today’s court ruling rejected that false distinction and made clear that the law applies to all aquarium collection, regardless of the extraction equipment used.

“This is a huge vindication and 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 resources for generations to come,” said Willie Kaupiko, a Native Hawaiian fisherman from Miloliʻi who, for decades, has fought to protect Hawaiʻi’s reefs from the harms and abuses of the aquarium trade.

“With this ruling, the court affirms that the destructive aquarium pet trade — not just a subset of gear — requires thorough environmental review,” 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 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 the generations to come.”

“This momentous decision is cause for celebration. It slams the brakes on decades of coral reef depletion from extreme overharvesting for the aquarium pet trade outside Hawaiʻi, and it begins a return to abundance for dozens of reef fish and creatures,” said Rene Umberger, executive director of For the Fishes. “Going forward, proper environmental review must ensure these species and their coral reef homes are protected and benefit all in Hawaiʻi.”

“The court, like our local communities, clearly understands the detrimental impacts of an improperly regulated aquarium trade in Hawaiian waters,” said Maxx Phillips, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Hawai‘i director and staff attorney. “Reefs are the backbone of our ocean. They support important biodiversity, put food on our families’ tables, and shelter our coastlines from sea-level rise and storms. With the mounting threats of climate change, Hawaii must protect our public trust resources for the benefit of all, not just a small for-profit industry.”

“I am grateful that the court stepped in to protect Hawai‘i’s reefs, but the fight is not over yet. We need to ensure that the agency actually enforces the courts’ rulings and holds poachers accountable to the law,” said Mike Nakachi, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner from Kailua-Kona.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are also deeply involved in the environmental review for West Hawai‘i aquarium permits and have played a key role in the string of aquarium poaching busts by state enforcement officers along the Kona Coast over the past year.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.