More than 400,000 colorful fish are captured each year to supply America’s aquariums–a number that conservationists say is far more than Hawaii reefs can bear.
They’re asking the First Circuit Court to order the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to conduct an environmental review of the industry, and halt all collecting and new permits until it is complete.
Currently, there are no limits on either the number of permits that can be issued, or the number of animals that can be taken. “It’s a free for all,” says Rene Umberger, one of seven plaintiffs in the suit brought by Earthjustice. “Coral and even sea rocks are fully protected, but you can go in and take every living animal off a reef.”
Ron Tubbs of the Hawaii Tropical Fish Assn. contends the aquarium fish collecting and export industry is “way over regulated already. Literally hundreds of laws regulate us,” he wrote in an email. These include state restrictions on gear, size limits and area closures, as well as federal health and agriculture rules.
The $2.5 million industry generates revenues of about $300,000 for the state and has about 50 permit holders, Umberger says. It is focused around Oahu and West Hawaii.
Umberger says the local take is too high — nearly three times the number that can be collected from the Great Barrier Reef. Large numbers of hermit crabs, cleaner fish, shrimp and other species are also collected.
“There’s so much pressure on Hawaii’s reefs from global warming, acidification, pollution,” Umberger says. “The fish are so critical to maintaining the health of the reef. These are super complex ecosystems.”
Tubbs, however, maintains the industry is not harming reef resources. “Fish catches are way down due to economic demand,” he wrote. “There is no need for a ban. Fish counts are up on all Islands.”
Though the state has not yet responded to the complaint, DLNR Director William Aila last year told Hawaii News Now that “from an environmental standpoint, there is no problem with aquarium fish. It’s sustainable, based upon the number of users right now, and the level of catch.”
According to an Earthjustice press release, DLNR has done no studies on the industry’s impact, although its reports have reflected concern about a growing number of collectors harvesting more animals from the reefs.
The industry has agreed to new rules, Tubbs wrote, “not because they were needed but because of User conflict opposition.” The rules will impose shorter net lengths, bag limits, more size limits, off-limits species and more. DLNR is set to hold hearings on the proposed regulations Dec. 5 on Oahu and the Big Island. But Umberger dismissed the rules as “bogus,” saying they were developed by the industry they’re intended to regulate.
Other plaintiffs are Mike Nakachi, Kaimi Kaupiko, Willie Kaupiko, Conservation Council for Hawaii, The Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity.