Expect the Hawaii marine aquarium fishery to be back in the news tomorrow, following a hearing today regarding the lawsuit filed against the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). Back in October, EarthJustice assisted individual citizens and advocacy groups to file a lawsuit against DLNR with the stated intent of protecting the State’s reef ecosystems from overfishing in the marine aquarium fishery.
Specifically, the suit seeks to compel DLNR to carry out environmental reviews under the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act (HEPA) before issuing any new aquarium collection permits or renewing any existing permits. The Attorney General’s office denied the claims outlined in the lawsuit and indicated the plaintiffs did not have legal standing, nor had they exhausted “administrative remedies.” The suit was filed by EarthJustice on behalf of Rene Umberger, Mike Nakachi, Kaimi Kaupiko, Willie Kaupiko, Conservation Council for Hawaii, The Humane Society of the United States, and the Center for Biological Diversity. EarthJustice is a nonprofit environmental law organization.
An Unsustainable Fishery?
The plaintiffs in the case contend the aquarium fishery is unsustainable. DLNR has consistently maintained the aquarium fishery can be, like other fisheries in state waters, fished sustainably. As I have personally reported many times, Hawaii’s aquarium fishery is one of the most studied fisheries in Hawaii, and the data appears clear. While it remains a relatively unregulated fishery, it is certainly not responsible for the “devastation” to Hawaii’s reefs that anti-aquarium fishery activists claim it is. Further, as fisheries managers have told me, if the aquarium fishery is deemed to be in such bad shape that it must be shut-down, it does not bode well for other fisheries in the state about which the same degree of fisheries data does not exist. This is certainly the case with the largely unregulated and unstudied recreational fishery.
A Better Managed Fishery?
Unfortunately, like so many fisheries debates, the fight over the aquarium fishery in Hawaii has become polarized into two extreme camps with the reality of the fishery and its impacts existing somewhere in the middle. Many of the most level-headed fisheries managers, fishers and other stakeholders I have interviewed over the years of covering Hawaii’s marine aquarium fishery believe the aquarium fishery can be fished sustainably but that it also needs to be better regulated. Limiting the number of permits, placing bag and slot limits on certain species, implementing a “white list” of fishes open to harvest, and giving fisheries managers more real-time management and enforcement ability are some of the measures that have received support from stakeholders.
It will be interesting to see how the judge rules in this case, as this is but one of an increasing number of legislative attacks against the aquarium trade. Stay tuned…