Rene Umberger has been diving in Hawaii for 30 years. But a lot has changed since the 1980s.
“We used to visit a group of animals, they would live in the same exact place for decades,” Umberger said. “And then overnight they would disappear. People would say, ‘My God, what happened to those animals?'”
Umberger believes that one of the causes of the animals’ demise is the collection of fish for aquariums. Along with several others, she filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court on Wednesday against the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). The suit seeks to force DLNR to study the effects of aquarium fish collection before issuing more permits.
DLNR Director William Aila said the agency could not comment on the issue until the Attorney General’s office reviews the complaint.
DLNR issues permits for aquarium fish collection in accordance with state law. But plaintiffs say the permit process falls short of protecting Hawaii’s underwater ecosystem.
“Right now the DLNR can issue an unlimited number of permits to collect an unlimited number of fish,” said Caroline Ishida, an attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental public interest law organization and another plaintiff in the case.
According to the complaint, Hawaii exports more fish for the aquariums than any other state. The Humane Society of the U.S. says Hawaii is the world’s third largest supplier of aquarium reef fish. Ishida said Hawaii’s unique fish species makes its reefs more desirable for fish collection.
This isn’t the first time the issue has been raised. The Hawaii State Legislature considered a bill regulating the aquarium fish trade last session. Umberger said in the past she has worked to persuade the Maui County Council to adopt stricter rules for fish collection. Maui is the only county that has passed additional regulations on the trade.
Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of Conservation Council for Hawaii, said this lawsuit is more about information than regulation.
Zieglar said she knows that members of her organization have varying opinions on aquarium fish collection in Hawaii. But she said this lawsuit is important because most people — including herself — don’t know enough about the issue to make informed conclusions.
“I don’t really have the data [on the issue] in front of me to analyze,” she said. “I have never been able to sit down and read a credible report.”
She said the public needs more information to make informed decisions about how best to regulate the trade.
“This lawsuit isn’t about banning aquarium collection,” she said. “It’s about generating information about the impacts and the alternatives.”
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