The Department of Land and Natural Resources should have conducted environmental reviews before issuing aquarium fish collecting permits, environmental groups and several Hawaii residents say in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Oahu’s 1st Circuit Court.
Earthjustice, the Conservation Council for Hawaii, the Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity joined with Maui resident Rene Umberger, Milolii residents Kaimi Kaupiko and Willie Kaupiko, and West Hawaii resident and business owner Mike Nakachi to file the complaint. The complaint seeks a declaratory judgment ordering the state to perform reviews under the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act. The plaintiffs say the act applies to the permits because they regulate an activity that happens within state waters.
“DLNR has never examined under HEPA the impacts of issuing permits allowing fish and invertebrate collection for the aquarium trade on the scale that has been occurring, yet in its 1998 State of the Reefs Report, the agency admitted that, ‘studies to characterize the effects of removal of reef fish on the coral reef ecosystem are necessary if this activity is to continue,’” the complaint said.
Umberger said the best possible outcome for the lawsuit, which she said should not result in lengthy court proceedings, is an order for the department to undertake the review.
“Collection stops in order for assessments to be made,” Umberger said. “How does (removing the fish) affect the entire ecosystem? Then the decision is made from there: Is collecting something we want to allow?”
DLNR Chairman William Aila said the Attorney General’s Office was reviewing the complaint. He declined, via email, to make any additional comments.
The 1998 State of the Reefs Report concluded removing fish and invertebrates from the reef may affect the long-term stability of the reef ecosystems, the complaint said. DLNR’s alleged failure to comply with the state’s environmental policy act, which the plaintiffs claimed requires environmental assessments before the collecting permits may be issued, harms the plaintiffs’ environmental, aesthetic, recreational, educational, cultural and economic interests.
Hawaii is the country’s largest exporter of species intended for the aquarium trade, and the majority of aquarium fish collected in Hawaii comes from West Hawaii’s waters, the lawsuit said.
“Due to the shift in aquarium fish collection activities from Oahu to west Hawaii in the 1980s, DLNR data shows that the total reported aquarium fish catch in west Hawaii increased 813 percent between 1983 and 2003,” the complaint said. “A study conducted in West Hawaii in the late 1990s found that aquarium collectors had significant effects on the populations of seven of the 10 aquarium collection fish species examined.”
The complaint listed 50 aquarium permits approved in the last 120 days. The complaint also challenged any permit DLNR renewed or granted before that time period.
Umberger said the lawsuit is a last resort after years of trying to get DLNR to follow what she and other plaintiffs believe the state’s laws require.
“It’s just been a constant recognition that the coral reef ecosystem is being negatively impacted,” Umberger said. “We kept running up against a wall with it.”
DLNR estimated it would cost about $200,000 per species to get baseline population counts, Umberger said.
“The state has not done a single, statewide population assessment,” she added.