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Yellow tangs discarded in a Kona dumpster.

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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.

Submit comments to: david.sakoda@hawaii.gov opposing aquarium collecting in Hawaii.

Tell Hawaii Government the Environmental Review by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council is not relevant, not accurate, not pono and not legal. The aquarium trade is not fishing, it’s a devastating commercial enterprise that trashes near-shore habitat and species. Don’t export Hawaii reef wildlife to feed the mainland aquarium trade.

Controversy continues with aquarium collectors still working Hawaii reefs in violation of a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling. In October, 2017, the Court ruled that no further aquarium collecting permits should be issued with injunctive relief to SHUT AQUARIUM COLLECTING DOWN NOW. Permanent closure of all aquarium collecting in Hawaii is pending Environmental Review.

Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Director Suzanne Case trumped that ruling by cancelling the permit requirement for aquarium collecting—now it takes only a commercial fishing license. Many Kona aquarium collectors never stopped collecting, with tacit support from Kona DAR and Hawaii DLNR. Aquarium plunder and consequence is documented. The aquarium trade is a devastating commercial enterprise that trashes near-shore habitat and species. The vast majority of Hawaii people want the aquarium trade to end. And so do millions of visitors around the world, who hold Hawaii reefs in their hearts. Reef tourism supports many thousands more people, with revenue 400 (four hundred) times greater.

UPDATE: The aquarium trade, in cahoots with Hawaii DLNR, now appeals for aquarium collector livelihood in the “Environmental Review.” The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC)* is a lobbying group for the commercial pet trade. Who paid for the PIJAC report? Hawaii taxpayers, or the aquarium trade? The 500-page aquarium promo piece is a plea for collectors making money. It is not environmental.

*PIJAC was recently in the news for lobbying Congress on puppy mills, because a ban on puppy mills would work a dire hardship on pet shop retailers. PIJAC uses the same tactic here, focusing on hardship for aquarium collectors, who claim Hawaii reefs as their private reserve. This Environmental Review is not relevant, not accurate, not pono and not legal.

Hawaii Governor Ige’s official policy on this issue: “We will have an aquarium trade the world will envy.”



The aquarium trade serves a dark hobby, confining coral reef wildlife and destroying reefs around the world.

Stripping reefs for an amusement industry is theoretically no different than capturing cetaceans for commercial shows. 98% of aquarium fish are wild caught. Many people may not reflect on the colorful fish in glass tanks used as furnishings for offices, bistros, waiting rooms, or homes—and some people may assume those fish are bred in captivity. The fact is that 2% of those fish are captive-bred and 98% are taken from the wild.  read more

KONA, HAWAII– Violence erupted when an aquarium collector rushed another diver for filming him as he captured coral reef species. The aquarium trade is under pressure in Hawaii, taking 98% of its stock from the wild, including iconic endemic species that leave Hawaii reefs by the millions each year.

He ripped away her breathing device, fifty feet down.

Wildlife officers said aquarium collector Jay Lovell will be charged with reckless endangerment, along with Lovell’s complaint for harassment.

Below: see complete attack video. Note: attacker holding on tightly to his precious catch of  yellow tangs as he approaches for attack.

The diver, a PADI certified dive instructor with 10,000 scuba dives in Hawaii, is an aquarium-ban activist. She said, “I was careful to stay clear of his working area, about 30 feet away. He saw me and snapped, darting full speed. The video shows his face as he attacked me. He hit my nose and ripped my regulator from my mouth, leaving me 50 feet down with no air. With any less training or experience I would have drowned.”

It was a holo holo outing to document Kona reef conditions. Participants included dedicated individuals and organizations from For The Fishes, The Snorkel Bob Foundation, Ocean Pursuits, and The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Robert Wintner aka Snorkel Bob said, “I went to take pictures of fish. It’s what I do. The attack was a violent reaction to a reef visitor with a camera. How many places sell or rent cameras to divers and snorkelers? The reef at Keawaiki is designated OPEN. It’s part of Hawaii’s public trust and not a private reserve for aquarium collectors who demand that nobody watch them.”

Mike Long said, “We went to document effects of coastal pollution and the aquarium trade on reef species and habitat along the Kona Coast, and we did. Mr. Lovell’s complaint may have been predictable, but the video of this attack reveals a far darker side of the situation.”