Hawai‘i has released (PDF) flawed environmental assessments (EAs) prepared by the aquarium industry that claim unlimited collection of reef fish has minimal impacts on the state’s coral reefs and wildlife. The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council is seeking to end a moratorium on reef fish collection, which the state’s Supreme Court imposed in September 2017 because the practice hasn’t been studied as required by the Hawai‘i Environmental Policy Act (HEPA).
Hawai‘i residents and conservation groups that challenged the reef fish collection criticized the industry’s conclusion as nonsensical and the environmental assessments as legally inadequate. They urged the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to require the industry to prepare environmental impact statements that objectively and comprehensively evaluate all environmental impacts and maintain the moratorium until that analysis is complete.
“The industry’s assessments dodge critical questions that need to be answered for the documents to comply with Hawai‘i’s environmental review law,” said Earthjustice attorney Summer Kupau-Odo, who represents plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the state. “For example, Hawai‘i law requires identification of cumulative and secondary impacts, including long-term effects, of the industry’s massive mining of reef animals. The EAs, however, do not discuss any effects beyond a one-year period. That’s a glaring and troubling legal flaw, which prevents DLNR from finding no significant impact.”
Hawai‘i Supreme Court last year sided with plaintiffs Rene Umberger, Mike Nakachi, Ka‘imi Kaupiko, Willie Kaupiko, Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, the Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity, all represented by Earthjustice, in a unanimous ruling that the state’s land department could not approve commercial collection permits without first complying with the environmental review mandated by Hawai‘i’s Environmental Policy Act.
“Hawai‘i resource managers recently estimated the cost and time required to complete fish stock assessments and catch limits for just 40 aquarium species at $10 million per year over 10 to 15 years. These quick, cursory assessments are clearly inadequate,” Umberger said. “The aquarium trade has access to nearly all of Hawai‘i’s estimated 475 square miles of nearshore coral reefs, where they are permitted to capture unlimited numbers of more than 250 marine species. It is literally impossible that an accurate assessment of aquarium trade impacts has been completed in just a few short months.”
“Of course unlimited collection of aquarium fish harms Hawai‘i’s reefs. For the state to conclude otherwise would be lazy and ridiculous,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to strengthen our protection of imperiled coral reefs, not trample them to stock private aquariums.”
The coalition also objected to the industry’s finding that commercial aquarium collection—which targets the Achilles Tang, a species Native Hawaiians traditionally catch for food—has no cultural impacts whatsoever.
“How can the industry claim with a straight face ‘no significant effects’ when it didn’t ask West Hawai‘i communities and Native Hawaiians who know these reefs best for our input?” said Willie Kaupiko, respected Miloli‘i fisherman and former member of the West Hawai‘i Reef Fish Working Group and West Hawai‘i Fisheries Council. “The truth is, this industry harms our ability to gather the food we’ve relied on for generations, and it’s time for the state to protect these resources from commercial exploitation.”
Hawai‘i law requires early consultation with citizen stakeholders in developing draft environmental assessments, but Kaupiko and other concerned community members and conservation groups well-known to the state and the industry, including the lawsuit’s plaintiffs, were shut out of that stage of the process.
The aquarium industry strips vast numbers of fish and other marine animals from Hawai‘i’s reefs and sells them outside the state; the catch may be in the millions of animals every year. Studies have shown that reducing reef fish and shellfish diversity impairs a reef’s ability to respond to stresses or disturbances.
Protecting coral reefs is vitally important as climate change and ocean warming and acidification threaten these biologically rich ecosystems. Coral reefs in Hawai’i, the Great Barrier Reef and others around the world have recently experienced the most severe and sustained coral bleaching episode in history, draining them of color and life.
“For years, DLNR allowed this industry to pillage Hawai‘i’s treasured coral reef wildlife, in violation of HEPA, and even after the court rulings, it dragged its feet to enforce violations in West Hawai‘i where commercial collection continues to this day at close to the same rate as before the court rulings,” said Keith Dane, Hawai‘i policy advisor for the Humane Society of the United States. “If DLNR accepts this shell of an EA—produced with no new research and no input from the plaintiffs or other stakeholders—it would be yet another dereliction of the agency’s responsibility to protect our ocean resources, for the benefit of all of Hawai‘i’s citizens.”