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After a 2017 Hawai‘i Supreme Court decision requiring environmental review of aquarium collection, state agency created loopholes for industry


January 27, 2020

Honolulu–Earthjustice filed suit Monday against a state agency it says is sidestepping the law when it comes to the regulation of tropical fish taken from Hawaii’s reefs for the commercial aquarium pet trade.

After sending a letter earlier this month to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources with these allegations, and getting no response to a request for a meeting, Earthjustice filed the suit in state Circuit Court.

“We’re going to court today to safeguard Hawaii’s treasured marine life against an absentee agency that insists on giving the aquarium industry free rein to strip our reefs and export our marine life to mainland hobbyists,” said Earthjustice attorney Mahesh Cleveland in a news release. “(Reef wildlife collection) is devastating for our reefs, and is scandalous in light of the court’s instructions to halt aquarium collection until the agency and industry fully come to grips with the environmental impacts of what they’re doing.”

The suit’s plaintiffs include Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners Willie and Ka‘imi Kaupiko. DLNR is named as the defendant.

In September 2017 the Hawaii Supreme Court made a landmark ruling, the suit said that commercial aquarium collection permits should be subject to environmental review requirements under the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act. A state Circuit Court subsequently voided all permits and placed a moratorium on all commercial aquarium permits until environmental reviews were completed.

Earthjustice alleges that DLNR instead “created a loophole” by issuing commercial marine licenses and allowed for the collection of aquarium fish, as long as no fine-meshed nets or traps were used.

DLNR previously required both the aquarium permit and marine license, but began accepting only the latter after the ruling. Since 2017 it has issued or renewed at least 72 commercial marine licenses to aquarium collectors, the suit said. Additionally, DLNR is not actively verifying self-reported methods of collection.

Using the loophole, commercial collectors have taken millions of reef wildlife critters from Hawaii reefs for aquarium purposes over the last two years.

“Fish extraction at these levels would be extraordinarily difficult or impossible without fine-meshed gear,” the suit said.

DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources maintained, however, that it has been following the law.

“Under current law, commercial aquarium fishing is allowed as long as collectors have a valid commercial marine license and are using legal gear and methods,” said DLNR in a statement. “This is applicable for all areas except West Hawaii, where all aquarium collection is prohibited until an environmental review is completed.”

“We respect Earthjustice’s right to pursue this matter in court if it believes that is the right thing to do,” DLNR continued. “We have not seen the lawsuit and cannot comment on its substance.”

Sales of aquarium fish have brought in more than $1 million from 2018 to 2019, according to catch data reports, while the industry itself has estimated the trade brings in an annual average of at least $2.6 million.

The suit said this unregulated activity threatens the livelihood of Native Hawaiian practitioners like Willie Kaupiko, a resident of Milolii, who is alarmed by the “large numbers of immature fish removed from the reef by such practices.” That severely reduces reproductive opportunities for the remaining fish populations, the suit said.

In Kaupiko’s cultural practice, one takes only what one needs to feed one’s family, leaving the rest to replenish itself.

He has also observed firsthand declining numbers of fish on the reefs, particularly the Achilles tang (pakuikui) and goldring surgeonfish (kole), as well as a decline in reef health in areas open to aquarium collection over the decades.

Aquarium fish are mostly herbivores, the suit said, and play a vital role in controlling algae growth in the coral reef ecosystem.

Press | 2015-2017


REEF JUSTICE! Hawaii Supreme Court overturns lower court rulings in favor of reef advocates. Commercial aquarium fish collecting must cease across Hawaii.



Nathan Eagle
September 6, 2017
Honolulu Civil Beat


June 29, 2017
Honolulu Civil Beat

  The Campaign to End the Aquarium Trade in Hawaii Surges Ahead The Huffington Post February 16, 2017   Snorkel Bob’s owner donates photos of marine life to Sacred Hearts School Mark Vieth Lahaina News September 15, 2016   Unconventional Wisdom Albert Lanier Accelerate Magazine July 2016

Hawaii Public Radio
Circuit Court Nullifies Permits to Harvest Aquarium Fish
Chris Robinson Brotherhood
November 7, 2017


Hawaii News Now
Ruling on aquarium fish hailed, but its implications aren’t yet known
Ben Gutierrez
September 6, 2017


Public Radio International
Saving Fancy Fish
Steve Curwood
June 16, 2017


Susan and Stephen Tschudi
90.1 FM, KZFR, Chico, CA
July 4, 2017


Hawaii Public Radio Interview
Sustainable Reefs and Aquarium Fish
June 1, 2017
Susan and Stephen Tschudi
90.1 FM, KZFR, Chico, CA
February 7, 2017
Mind Over Matters, The Sustainability Segment
Diane Horn
KEXP 90.3 Seattle, WA
February 11, 2017


The Donna Seebo Show
Donna Seebo
December 17, 2015

Life Lessons
Rick Tocquigny
July 30, 2015

In Tune To Nature
Sonia Swartz
89.3 FM, WRFG Radio Free Georgia
February 25, 2015


Robert Wintner- Presentation
An Ocean that Keeps on Giving, Reef Recovery & Political Will
Honolulu, HI & Kea Lani Hotel, Maui
February 8, 2015

Living on Earth
Public Radio International
February 6, 2015

Marko Mijuskovic
Hawaii Money Resource Show
760 AM, Honolulu, HI
February 5, 2015

with Sonali Kolhatkar,
KPFK 90.7FM-Los Angeles, 98.7FM Santa Barbara, KPFA 94.1FM San Francisco
January 16, 2015

Link to complete article on Uprising.

Gorilla Radio
with Chris Cook,
CFUV, 101.9 FM, Victoria, BC, Canada
January 27, 2015


The fish in your aquarium may have been stolen from Hawaii’s coral reefs
Adam Wernick
PRI’s The World
August 28, 2017


August 24, 2017


Collusion ‘n Colleen
July 19, 2017
The Huffington Post


The Campaign to End the Aquarium Trade in Hawaii Surges Ahead
February 14, 2017
The Huffington Post
Reef Society and the tyranny of data
December 2016
Animal Sentience: An Interdisciplinary Journal on Animal Feeling


Ceci LaDuca
1969 & Then Some
Columbia County Observer

Gary Ilimen
1969 & Then Some | Rider’s Library
December 22, 2015

Nicole Henke
Bless Their Hearts Mom
October 27, 2015

Vic’s Media Room
October 28, 2015

Debra Schoenberger
Blooming with Books
October 29, 2015

Heidi’s Wanderings
October 30, 2015

Life as Leels
November 2, 2015

November 2, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: “REEF LIBRE” by Robert Wintner
Angela Thompson
A Mama’s Corner of the World

BOOK REVIEW: “REEF LIBRE” by Robert Wintner
Christina T.
Creating Serenity

BOOK REVIEW: “REEF LIBRE” by Robert Wintner
Lavish Bookshelf

BOOK REVIEW: “REEF LIBRE” by Robert Wintner
One Frugal Girl

BOOK REVIEW: “REEF LIBRE” by Robert Wintner
The Bookish and The Romantic

BOOK REVIEW: “REEF LIBRE” by Robert Wintner
Teresa Noel
T’s Stuff
October 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: “REEF LIBRE” by Robert Wintner
Laura Fabiani
Essentially Italian
October 19, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: “REEF LIBRE” by Robert Wintner
Bound 4 Escape
October 20, 2015

Saving our Reefs, by Robert Wintner, Author of Reef Libre
Jaquo Lifestyle Magazine
October 21, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: “REEF LIBRE” by Robert Wintner
Lori N. Lutes
She Treads Softly
October 22, 2015

For Kihei man, there is life beyond snorkel gear
Eileen Chao
The Maui News
August 30, 2015

Maui Author and Environmentalist’s New Books Recall Defining Era
Diane Ako
Star Advertiser
August 28, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: “1969 and Then Some” by Robert Wintner
Jan Miller
Joint Forces Journal
August 21, 2015

January 2015

Along Cuba’s Coast, the Last Best Coral Reef in the Caribbean Thrives
Fen Montaigne
YALE environment 360
March 2, 2015

Time Warp Traps Cuba Coral Reefs in Pristine State
Scott Norvell
March 2, 2015

Archived Press | 2014 & Earlier

  “The Journey Home” with Diego Mulligan,, Santa Fe, NM November 20, 2012 (click on On Demand, choose The Journey Home, Nov. 20)

  Making Waves with Mary Hall,, Jeffersonville, NY November 19, 2012

“Ecotopia” with Susan & Steve Tchudi,
Chico, CA November 13, 2012

“Talkin Pets” with Jon Patch
October 20, 2012

“An Evening with Guy Rathbun”,
CA October 17, 2012

The DeMarco-Polo Show
July 23, 2012  

Reef Society Under Siege

A Critical Look at Unlimited Extraction by the Aquarium Trade on Hawaii’s Coral Reefs Main Stream Media October, 2010 CFUV Radio with Chris Cook September 20, 2010  

Groups partner to combat Hawaii aquarium collection West Hawaii Today June 20, 2014        

The Downside of Trading Ben Sarver, Big Island Traveler Spring 2013 Support Builds for Protection of Hawaii’s Coral Reef Ecosystem December 18, 2012

Wildlife Species are a Public Trust, Not Disposable Trinkets November 24, 2012

Protecting Hawaii’s Reef Ecosystems from the Aquarium Trade Earthjustice October 24, 2012

The Dark Hobby Redux Sept 7, 2012

The Dark Hobby Redux: A 2012 update on the global 3-tier campaign to ban aquarium trade trafficking, Part 1 of 2

The Reef as a Community: Cold and Fuzzy Ke ola Magazine March 9, 2011

Snorkel Bob Sheds Light on Fishy Industry The Garden Island November 10, 2010

Saving Hawaii’s tropical fish and coral reefs from demise October 11, 2010 Sea Turtle Restoration Project

“In Addition to Coral Bleaching” September 2010 Diver Magazine

U.S. Humane Society Holds Meeting on Maui September 23, 2010 Maui Weekly

Maui County Says NO! to New York Times August 26, 2010 Huffington Post

Maui Could Be First County To Protect Aquarium Fish August 24, 2010 Honolulu Civil Beat

The Dark Hobby; Can We Stop the Devastating Impact of Home Aquaria on Reefs Worldwide? August 21, 2010

Maui County Council Ordinance Curbs Reef Extraction for Aquarium Trade August 13, 2010

Huffington Post Having Our Oceans and Eating Them Too July 13, 2010

Huffington Post Bill to police reef aquatic life advances June 17, 2010

Maui News Aquarium fish measures swim into the crosscurrents June 3, 2010

Maui News Maui bills target reef fish captures June 4, 2010

Honolulu Advertiser Where the Wild Things Are April 15, 2010

Maui Weekly Tropical Fish dump prompts outrage February, 29, 2010 West Hawaii Today

Something Smells Fishy

April 9, 2013
Pet News and Views



Focus on reef recovery
August 29, 2010
Maui News

Maui’s fish should stay in Maui’s waters
June 13, 2010
Maui News

Apologist Collectors, a crime against nature
February 1, 2010
West Hawaii Today