Ban on collecting aquarium fish in West Hawaii ends

Jan. 31 (Reuters) – An Oahu District Court judge on Monday vacated an injunction effectively ending a five-year ban on collecting aquarium fish in western Hawaii waters.

An Oahu District Court judge on Monday vacated an injunction effectively ending a five-year ban on collecting aquarium fish in western Hawaii waters.

However, state officials warned that Judge Jeffrey P. Crabtree’s decision does not mean fishing licenses will be automatically granted to commercial collectors who apply.

“Today’s decision itself does not permit aquarium fishing,” said Melissa Goldman, assistant attorney general, in a statement following the ruling. “This issue can now be addressed by the (State Department of Land and Natural Resources), which is the agency charged with managing the state’s water resources.”

A spokesman for DLNR said all applications will be reviewed by the agency’s board of directors in a process that is expected to include public review and input. And then only a maximum of seven permits are considered under the guidelines set out in the fishery’s revised final environmental impact statement.

An injunction blocking the issuance or renewal of aquarium fishing permits in the rest of the state remains in effect.

Earthjustice attorney Mahesh Cleveland said his clients, a Maui group called For the Fishes, would ask Crabtree to reconsider its decision and possibly appeal to a higher court.

“We are disappointed that the court ruled against us,” he said. “But the fight is not over yet.”

In a statement, Cleveland added, “We plan to do everything in our power to prevent trade from hitting the reefs of western Hawaii again.”

Earthjustice obtained the injunction after BLNR, by separate vote, accepted the revised final EIA for the West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area in 2022. Opponents argued that the environmental documents were inadequate.

Crabtree modified a statewide restraining order Monday after it was ruled that the environmental assessment process for the West Hawaii municipality under the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act was complete. The injunction remains in effect for the rest of the state, including the island of eastern Hawaii and Oahu.

Goldman said the decision returns management of the state’s aquatic resources in the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area to the DLNR.

“Anyone engaged in commercial aquarium collection without the required permit in the West Hawaii County or elsewhere in the state will be reported and DLNR will pursue enforcement to the fullest extent permitted by law,” DLNR said in a press release Monday.

The revised EIS allows seven commercial fishermen to operate in western Hawaii waters from Upolu Point in North Kohala to Ka Lae (South Point) in Kau. Species that may be caught under the plan include Yellow Tang, Kole, Orangespine Unicornfish, Potter’s Angelfish, Brown Doctorfish, Thompson’s Doctorfish, Black Doctorfish and Bird Wrasse.

The court ruled in 2022 that the aquarium industry’s revised environmental impact statement for West Hawaii — approved by default after the Land Board deadlocked in a 3-3 vote — met the state’s environmental assessment statute. That decision is now before the state appellate courts.

Meanwhile, Monday afternoon, the state Senate heard testimony on Senate Bill 505, a proposed law that would ban commercial aquarium collection entirely.

In testimony before the Agriculture and Environment Committee, supporters of the bill said Hawaii’s reef fish would decline significantly if commercial fishermen were allowed to continue operating, while the opposition said there are plenty of fish to sustain an industry that is good for the state is.

“Our reefs are dying,” said Ted Bohlen of the Hawaii Reef and Ocean Coalition. “They are dying mainly because of climate change. But we must help them wherever we can. And one way to help them is by not taking fish off the reef, especially herbivores that help clean the reef. So this bill is necessary to protect our reefs.”

Commercial fisherman Jim Lovell told lawmakers that the aquarium fishery in western Hawaii was strong enough to withstand seven fishermen.

“The (fish) numbers are increasing,” he said.