It’s the industry that won’t die.

For years, opponents of the aquarium fishing industry in Hawaii have introduced bill after bill in the Legislature, trying to shut down the aquarium fishing industry in the state.

Every year, the fishermen have fended them off with the help of pet industry lobbyists and friends in the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, some of whose past chairs have been aquarium fishermen.

That seems to be coming true again this year. House Bill 2154, which would have prohibited “all harvesting of aquatic life for commercial aquarium purposes,” made it as far as the Committees on Energy and Environmental Protection and Land, Water and Hawaiian Affairs before it was deferred.

That effectively stops the bill for this session, despite having 12 sponsors including Hawaii island legislators Richard Creagan, Nicole Lowen, Joy San Buenaventura and Chris Todd.

Yellow tang, seen here off the west side of the Big Island, are one of the most targeted species by the aquarium industry. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The Big Island, especially West Hawaii, has traditionally been one of the hot spots of aquarium collection — which led to the setting up of the West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area in 2000. That established 14 “fish replenishment areas and netting restricted areas” along that coast where aquarium collecting was prohibited or restricted.

The aquarium-collecting prohibitionists did appear to score a major victory in the courts in September 2017, when the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that commercial aquarium fishing permits were subject to review under the state’s administrative rules, requiring the DLNR to conduct a review of environmental impacts before it could issue aquarium fishing licenses — essentially invalidating all the licenses that DLNR had issued to the industry.

But instead of shutting the industry down until an EIS was conducted, the DLNR ruled that such licenses weren’t required — that fishermen could take aquarium fish under an ordinary commercial fishing permit so long as the fishermen didn’t use fine mesh nets below a certain gradient.

Earthjustice, citing the DLNR’s own records, notes that since the court’s ruling, aquarium fishermen have recorded taking over half a million live sea creatures from Hawaii’s waters.

“Under current law, commercial aquarium fishing is allowed as long as collectors have a valid commercial marine license and are using legal gear and methods. This is applicable for all areas except West Hawaii, where all aquarium collection is prohibited until an environmental review is completed,” said DLNR spokesman Dan Dennison.

Dennison declined to specifically answer a series of questions sent by Civil Beat, citing pending litigation.

Earthjustice, For the Fishes, the Center for Biologic Diversity and some traditional Native Hawaiian fishermen, have challenged this new policy in court. According to Rene Umberger of For the Fishes, hearing dates have not yet been set.

Among other problems, according to Earthjustice spokesperson Mahesh Cleveland, the agency “does nothing to verify the methods collectors claim to be using. It would be extremely difficult to gather the types and amounts of animals that the industry has continued to collect without using fine-meshed gear, which has always been the primary means for gathering aquarium fish.”

Aquarium Fisherman Want More Access

Aquarium fishermen, meanwhile, are seeking even weaker regulations.

The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council has filed a draft environmental impact statement seeking the issuance of 14 aquarium fishing permits in the West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area itself — the only area of the state that’s currently off limits to aquarium fishing. The DEIS says peer-reviewed studies indicate that those permits could be issued without any substantial impact on the environment.

But opponents say the DEIS is seriously flawed and should be thrown out.

Deborah Ward of the Sierra Club testified that the DEIS fails to provide adequate baseline data making it difficult to analyze risks from cumulative factors such as unregulated collecting, under-reporting of catch, changes to habitat and impact on traditional fishing practices.

She also noted the DEIS failed to take into account “future serious impacts to the coastal near-shore habitat due to climate change.”

Reefs Support Several Businesses

The aquarium fishing industry isn’t the only one that depends on reef fish for a living in Hawaii.

Aside from commercial and traditional subsistence fishermen, the reefs also support tourism businesses such as dive boats and snorkel cruises.

Many of those businesses submitted testimony in favor of HB 2154 and against the fishermen’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement — often with personal testimony about the disappearance of species such as yellow tangs, which they attributed to the aquarium fishing industry.

Big Island
A 2014 photo of an unidentified aquarium fisher in Papa Bay on the Big Island. Courtesy: Brooke Everett/For The Fishes

Mark Schacht, for instance, cited 30-plus years as a dive master and videographer on Hawaii’s reefs when he testified. “There has been a horrible, devastating decline in pristine reef habitat and in the numbers of different species of wild reef fish typically encountered on dives,” he said.

Some industry supporters acknowledged that some fish populations had declined, but blamed that decline on other factors such as pollution, invasive species or global warming.

Among those who testified in favor of HB 2154 was Toni Marie Davis, executive director of Activities & Attractions Association of Hawaii, which represents over 150 businesses with over 1,500 employees.

“There are no limits on the numbers of marine animals that can be taken,” noted Davis. “Hawaii residents along with many repeat visitors and tour operators which include snorkeling and scuba diving operations have long called for a complete end to the trade for decades because of environmental impacts. It is also in conflict with local and cultural values.”

“Their livelihoods are no more important than the fisherman’s,” countered second-generation aquarium fisherman Micah Isham, who dismissed the reports of fewer fish as “hearsay,” in testimony at the hearing for HB154.

“That’s not data. That’s not something that we can cut off people’s jobs for, based on ‘I don’t see them anymore,’” he maintained.

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