Seeking ban on aquarium fishing: Groups urge DLNR to draft new rules

Seeking ban on aquarium fishing: Groups urge DLNR to draft new rules

Big Island environmental groups hope to end Hawaii’s commercial fishing industry once and for all next month.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources on Dec. 8 will consider a petition filed by several groups urging the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to draft new rules prohibiting the capture of marine life for commercial purposes in aquariums.

The petition, which was scheduled to be heard at a BLNR meeting earlier this month until it was postponed, says commercial ornamental fish collection is irreconcilably inconsistent with Native Hawaiian values ​​and the DLNR’s mandate to protect the state’s natural resources.

A 2017 injunction prohibiting the issuance or renewal of fishing permits in West Hawaiian waters was lifted earlier this year, said Renee Umberger, executive director of the environmental nonprofit For The Fishes. Although no new permits have been issued, she said this could change.

In the six years since the injunction, Umberger said fish in West Hawaii have rebounded.

“The (Department of Aquatic Resources) data we saw showed that yellow tang, for example, had the largest single-year population increase in 2018,” Umberger said. “And we know that was due to the injunction, because the increase only occurred in areas where aquarium fishing was permitted.”

In 2000, approximately 32 percent of the West Hawaii coast was closed to commercial fishing, which Umberger said led to similar increases in fish numbers in subsequent years.

But the damage caused by overfishing cannot be completely repaired so quickly, or perhaps ever. Former aquarium collectors said they were able to catch more than 1,000 fish in a single day, and that the entire trade was taking more fish from West Hawaiian waters than all subsistence fishermen combined, Umberger said.

Populations of the pakwekoi, or Achilles tang, declined by up to 95% in certain locations between 1999 and 2021, and Umberger said it is unclear whether the species will recover.

With the effects of climate change expected to intensify over the next few years, Umberger added, the state’s coral reefs cannot withstand declining populations of fish — which help keep coral reefs healthy through a complex web of mutualistic symbiosis.

“We didn’t have a good picture of the impacts of climate change at the time,” Umberger said. “But at this point, we believe the future of our coral reefs is at stake.”

However, the petition would face opposition, not least from the Division of Water Resources, which recommended that the BLNR deny the petition in December.

The DAR recommendation states that expending any resources to prevent fish catches in aquariums would conflict with the “Fisheries Management Framework” that DAR is developing.

This framework could allow BLNR to consider limited commercial harvest for aquariums, according to the DAR recommendation.

Mike Nakacchi, another signer of the petition, said BLNR will likely hear testimony from former commercial aquarium collectors, which he said amounts to “seven men.”

“They want the state to create a seven-man limited permit system,” Nakacchi said. “They’ve been off the reef for the last six years. … They’ll say they need to fish to feed their families, but they haven’t fed their families this way in six years. Most of them have moved on.”

Umberger said the collectors who had not yet moved in proposed a system in which they would be limited to 250,000 fish annually, which she said was the same amount of fish taken from West Hawaiian waters annually two decades ago when there were 47 collectors.

Umberger suggested that these numbers highlight the potential for widespread underreporting of fish harvests in the intervening years.

Nakacchi said there was still illegal fishing — “fish are still sold on the mainland,” and predicted that any return to limited aquarium fishing would create a legal market and a black market that would have to be monitored by the DAR, which could require more resources and manpower than The department can afford it.

However, regardless of the outcome of the BLNR meeting, environmentalists have several irons in the fire.

Nakachi and For the Fishes are plaintiffs in a 2021 lawsuit against BLNR and DLNR that will go before the Hawaii Supreme Court on December 4.

This lawsuit challenges the approval of an environmental impact statement with respect to the aquarium fishing industry, which plaintiffs alleged was published in violation of the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act.

Email Michael Brestovansky at

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *