Hawai‘i Court Voids All Existing Recreational Aquarium Collection Permits


State illegally permitted capture of 250,000 fish in a year


Summer Kupau-Odo, Earthjustice Mid-Pacific Office, (808) 599-2436  

Rene Umberger, For the Fishes, (808) 283-7225 

Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 845- 6703  

Kirsten Peek, The Humane Society of the United States, (301) 548-7793

Citizens and conservation groups achieved another legal victory against the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) when the First Circuit Court—sitting as the Environmental Court—ruled that all unexpired recreational aquarium collection permits are void.  

The April 12 ruling invalidates about 131 permits, each of which authorized the capture of almost 2,000 fish, for about 250,000 fish in a year. Under these permits, all of the fish could be taken from the same rare species and from the same location, including distressed coral reefs already suffering from ocean warming and pollution. The coalition of individuals and organizations that challenged these permits in court, as well as the coalition’s attorneys at Earthjustice, applauded this ruling. 

There is currently no law limiting the number of recreational aquarium collection permits DLNR can issue so the permitting scheme allowed for unlimited take. DLNR issued the aquarium collection permits automatically upon application through an online process, without requiring the applicants to describe what fish they intended to catch, how many, and where.  

“These permits are invalid because DLNR issued them without considering the environmental consequences as Hawai‘i law requires, without even asking what each applicant intended to do with a permit,” said Earthjustice attorney Summer Kupau-Odo, who represents plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “DLNR’s duty is to manage and conserve, not be cavalier about, Hawai‘i’s public trust resources.” 

“It’s well past time for DLNR and Governor David Ige to step into the 21st century and stop their magical thinking that marine life captured for aquariums can somehow sustain limitless extraction without impact. No other wildlife or ecosystem on Earth has been able to withstand such an assault, and Hawai‘i is no exception,” said plaintiff Rene Umberger.

“This victory is an important step toward protecting Hawai‘i’s beleaguered reef fish from the aquarium industry,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “State officials can’t continue giving aquarium collectors free rein to disrupt and destroy some of the world’s most beautiful coastal ecosystems.” 

The decision is the latest legal victory for 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—who sued DLNR in 2012 for failing to comply with Hawai‘i’s Environmental Policy Act and study environmental impacts before issuing aquarium collection permits.  

In a unanimous decision in September 2017, the Hawai‘i Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled environmental review is necessary before DLNR can issue commercial aquarium collection permits that allow unlimited capture of fish and other coral reef wildlife. In October 2017, the Circuit Court, in line with the high court’s ruling, declared all existing commercial permits void and ordered an injunction prohibiting DLNR from issuing any new commercial permits until it complied with the Hawai‘i Environmental Policy Act. The question regarding the legality of the recreational permits DLNR issued remained unresolved until today.

“The Hawai‘i Supreme Court set a strong precedent in its ruling last year that DLNR cannot ignore the devastating impacts of unlimited commercial fish collection on Hawai‘i’s delicate coral reefs,” said Anna Frostic, managing wildlife attorney for The Humane Society of the United States. “Thursday’s ruling properly follows that opinion, and recognizes that DLNR similarly cannot allow the removal of hundreds of thousands of fish under recreational permits in the absence of environmental review.”

An aquarium collector takes fish from a reef in Hawai`i.
An aquarium collector takes fish from a reef in Hawai`i. (Photo provided by Brooke Everett)

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