Environmental Council Unanimously Upholds Rejection of Aquarium Trade EIS
The State of Hawai’i Environmental Council issued a unanimous decision on Thursday effectively extending the ban aimed at reopening the collection of West Hawai’i reef fish for the aquarium trade. The decision signaled a victory for reef advocates, many of whom for decades expressed concern about the impacts of commercial aquarium collection on the ocean’s health.
Although affirming the Board’s decision effectively extends the moratorium on aquarium collection in West Hawai‘i, plaintiffs allege the state has continued to allow the industry to extract an unlimited number of fish annually in East Hawai‘i and elsewhere throughout the state.
No permits have been issued since the 2017 decision, though aquarium fishing using other gear, considered less optimal for aquarium fishing but not regulated under Hawaiʻi law, continues. The EIS was an applicant-action rather than an agency-action, meaning it was proposed by the aquarium fishers, not the Department.
“This is a huge win for me and my family, and for our way of life,” said Miloli‘i fisherman Wilfred “Willie” Kaupiko, who has been fighting for over 30 years to protect West Hawai‘i reefs from the damaging effects of the aquarium trade. “We are glad that the decision to reject the trade’s EIS will be upheld, and we will continue to carry on what we have fought to protect all these years.”
The Council upheld the Land Board’s May 22 decision which marked a major milestone in a legal battle that started in 2012, when Kaupiko and his son Ka‘imi joined forces with Maui’s Rene Umberger, Mike Nakachi, the Center for Biological Diversity, and others to challenge what they called a “failure” by the state to examine the aquarium pet trade’s impacts to ocean health.
Represented by Earthjustice, the group secured a win in 2017 when the Hawai‘i Supreme Court ruled that the state could not issue further commercial aquarium purposes until the trade’s environmental impacts were adequately reviewed under the Hawai‘i Environmental Policy Act.
After a three-year review process, the Board unanimously rejected the EIS saying it failed to satisfy HEPA’s environmental review requirements. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, the Virginia-based pet industry lobbyist group that orchestrated preparation of the review documents, appealed the Board’s decision to the Environmental Council. This was the first time since HEPA was enacted more than 40 years ago that the Council, which is responsible for determining whether government agencies have correctly applied HEPA, has presided over such an appeal.
“The Council’s historic decision to affirm the Land Board reinforces that Hawai‘i’s bedrock environmental review law is not merely a paper exercise,” said Earthjustice attorney Kylie Wager Cruz. “It’s about engaging with communities, providing an honest assessment of impacts, and taking steps to minimize harm. The industry simply didn’t do that, and now two separate state agencies have unanimously agreed.”
The Board had concluded that the EIS failed to paint a true picture of the environmental harms of commercial aquarium collection. Board members had noted a troubling lack of information about the ecological effects of removing fish in mass quantities from an already fragile reef ecosystem, and a failure to seriously consider the cultural impacts of the trade, among other flaws.
“The industry used faulty data and failed to consider cumulative impacts to the environment, including how the effects of climate change interact with the severe losses of herbivore abundance to this wildlife trade,” said Rene Umberger, Executive Director of For the Fishes, a reef wildlife advocacy group.
“Extracting Hawai‘i’s reef wildlife for the private pet industry is fundamentally at odds with Hawaiian culture, traditions, and religious practices,” said Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and founder of Kai Palaoa. “Marine life, which depend on a healthy and abundant reef ecosystem, are not only sacred and revered but also aumakua (family gods) to many people.”
This ongoing dispute has prompted reef advocates, represented by Earthjustice, to file a parallel lawsuit, which is pending before the Hawai‘i Environmental Court.
Read the Environmental Council’s decision here.