Judge vacates injunction to fish at West Hawaii Aquarium

An Oahu District Court judge on Monday reversed an injunction prohibiting the issuance or renewal of aquarium fishing licenses in the waters of western Hawaii.

However, state officials were quick to point out that the ruling does not mean that commercial trade in the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area (WHRFMA) will begin immediately. The Fisheries Management Area covers the entire coast of western Hawaii, from Upolu Point in North Kohala to Ka Lae (South Point) in Ka’u.

Following Judge Jeffrey P. Crabtree’s decision Monday, the state departments of the Attorney General and the Department of Land and Natural Resources issued a joint press release stating that no aquarium fishing permits have yet been considered or issued. Additionally, the lifting of the injunction in the WHRFMA does not permit the immediate resumption of commercial aquarium fisheries anywhere in the state.

“Today’s decision returns management of the state’s aquatic resources in the West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area to the DLNR following the completion of the West Hawaii environmental assessment process. Today’s decision itself does not allow for aquarium fishing. That question may now be taken up by the DLNR, which is tasked with managing the state’s water resources,” Assistant Attorney General Melissa Goldman said in the release.

The injunction imposed in 2017 in a case known as the “Umberger case,” which challenged acceptance of a definitive environmental impact assessment for commerce, was lifted Monday due to environmental assessment under the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act for the WHRFMA, the state is complete said.

The state released a final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the practice in the waters of western Hawaii in its October 8, 2022 edition of The Environmental Notice. The EIS was deemed legally approved because the Board of Land and Natural Resources, the permitting authority, did not make a decision within the 30 days required by law. The 2021 board blocked 3-3 on the revised EIS put forward by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council.

As part of the revised EIS, the number of commercial aquarium fishing permits issued in the WHRFMA was reduced from 10 to seven and the allowable commercial catch from 40 to eight species. Only Yellow Tang, Kole, Orangespine Unicornfish, Potter’s Angelfish, Brown Surgeonfish, Thompson’s Doctorfish, Black Doctorfish and Bird Wrasse are allowed to be caught under the plan.

A lawsuit against the acceptance of the revised EIS remains open. The lawsuit, which Earthjustice filed in 2021 on behalf of a coalition of conservation groups, native Hawaiian fishermen and cultural workers, remains on appeal after an Oahu District Court judge denied the group’s motion for summary judgment and a final judgment in September 2022 had issued, in which the application of the state authority was confirmed the permit.

“We are disappointed that the court agreed to reopen West Hawai’i for aquarium collection, particularly given the serious legal deficiencies of the industry’s EIS, which are being addressed on appeal, and the serious threat of environmental damage posed by the Emerging Opening of West Hawai “I have to rise again,” Earthjustice attorney Mahesh Cleveland said in a news release Monday night. “Fortunately, we still have appellate courts to correct these deficiencies, and we plan to do everything in our power to prevent trade from hitting the reefs of western Hawai’i again.”

Earthjustice also noted that the state legislature is considering a proposal to outright ban commercial aquarium collecting in the state.

Senate Bill 505 and its accompanying House measure, HB 910, would, as proposed, prohibit the harvesting of aquatic life for commercial aquarium purposes, regardless of the method of collection. A joint Senate committee on Agriculture and Environment and Water and Land heard Senate Bill 505 Monday, but postponed decision-making until early February.

“I’ve watched this industry devastate our reef ecosystems for decades,” said Mike Nakachi of Kailua-Kona. “The aquarium trade not only damages the marine resources that our public trust trusts, but also targets many fish that hold special importance as food and cultural resources. We must stop the trade from exporting these fish to die in tanks on the continent. They belong here, on our reefs, for the benefit of present and future generations in Hawaii.”