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


Court closes loophole that allowed industry to illegally extract over half a million marine animals from Hawai‘i reefs since 2017


Mahesh Cleveland, mcleveland@earthjustice.org, (808) 599-2436, ext. 6621

Rene Umberger, rene@forthefishes.org, (808) 283-7225

Mike Nakachi, mike@moanaohana.com, (808) 640-3871

Maxx Phillips, mphillips@biologicaldiversity.org, (808) 284-0007

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) 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 threaten to empty Hawai‘i reefs.

“We are relieved that the court shut this illegal loophole so 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.

Kaikea Nakachi
Mike Nakachi feeds a Hilu (blackstripe coris), a fish steeped in Hawaiian legend and targeted by the aquarium trade for its striking appearance.

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, DLNR 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, DLNR 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 Hawai‘i’s environmental impact statement laws apply to all aquarium collection, regardless of the extraction equipment used.

“After all this time trying to protect our resources, 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 home for generations to come. But wala‘au [talking/words] is not enough. The state has work to do,” 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 confirms what should have been clear in the first place — that the aquarium pet trade requires thorough environmental review, and not just different schemes to keep doing the same thing,” 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 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 to our future generations.”

“The Court, like our local communities, clearly understands the detrimental impacts of an improperly regulated aquarium trade in Hawaiian waters. 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, the State must protect our public trust resources for the benefit of all, not just a small for-profit industry,” said Maxx Phillips, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Hawai‘i director and staff attorney.

“I am grateful that the court stepped in to protect Hawai‘i’s reefs, but the fight is not over yet. With all the illegal collection that has happened already, 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 extensively involved in the environmental review for aquarium permits in West Hawai‘i and O‘ahu, played a key role in the string of aquarium poaching busts by state enforcement officers along the Kona Coast in the last year, and have been putting pressure on commercial airlines to stop transporting illegally caught reef animals for the aquarium trade.

“This ruling makes clear no collection is legal and, therefore, commercial airlines, which have for years facilitated the trafficking of Hawai‘i’s reef wildlife for the aquarium trade, must finally stop transporting Hawai‘i-captured reef wildlife or risk steep fines under federal laws,” said Rene Umberger, Executive Director of For the Fishes.

Photo courtesy of Ka‘imi Kaupiko
Uncle Willie Kaupiko, seen here practicing kilo (astute observation) near his home fishery, has been fighting for decades to protect Hawai‘i’s reefs from the damaging effects of the aquarium trade.

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