A new state environmental court ruling is expected to rein in Hawaii’s aquarium fish trade and give a boost to opponents of the controversial commercial practice in local waters.

It won’t bring that practice to an immediate halt, however, and that has some conservationists worried there could be a “run on the reefs” by aquarium fish collectors before their permits expire.

First Circuit Judge Jeffrey Crabtree’s order, issued Friday, found that the state agency responsible for protecting Hawaii’s nearshore waters has been violating state environmental law because it fails to require the proper environmental reviews for all aquarium fishing.

Previously, in 2017, the Hawaii Supreme Court made clear that commercial fishermen needed an approved environmental impact statement if they wanted to use fine-mesh nets to collect aquarium fish.

A kole tang, the second most targeted species in West Hawaii by the aquarium fishers. FromSandToGlass/Flickr

Still, the Department of Land and Natural Resources continued to issue commercial marine licenses, or “CMLs,” for the aquarium fishermen who used methods other than mesh nets, under a different state statute.

Crabtree’s order says that practice violated the state’s Environmental Policy Act.

In less than three years since that Supreme Court ruling came out, more than half a million fish have been collected from Hawaii waters for aquarium sales, according to figures provided by DLNR to the court.

“The court finds the current levels of commercial aquarium fish capture … (are) far more than enough to meet the criteria for HEPA,” Crabtree wrote, referring to the state’s environmental review process.

DLNR said in a statement Monday that it’s taking “immediate steps” to comply with Crabtree’s order. Specifically, it said it won’t issue any new CMLs for aquarium fishing, nor would it renew the existing licenses.

However, the agency did not say it would cancel the existing CMLs for aquarium fish sales.

Instead, the DLNR statement pointed out that Crabtree had declined to issue an immediate injunction against the licenses as part of his order.

The DLNR’s statement is “a good start” and reflects Crabtree’s order to come to an agreement, said Mahesh Cleveland, associate attorney with the environmental legal group Earthjustice.

The law firm’s Mid-Pacific office filed suit against DLNR on behalf of longtime aquarium trade opponents such as Willie Kaupiko and Mike Nakachi.

“I can’t really predict where this is going to go,” Cleveland said. Earthjustice and its clients are weighing next steps, he added.

“The concern is that by not invalidating existing CMLs that’ll cause those collectors to do a run on the reef,” Cleveland added.

Such licenses expire after a year, DLNR said. Out of 3,000 CMLs for the state, only 41 report catches for aquarium sales, it added.

The local aquarium trade had generated a lot of contention in recent decades, particularly on Hawaii island’s Kona side, where there have been numerous reported confrontations and even worrisome underwater altercations between harvesters and those determined to stop the trade.

DLNR has also arrested several people for illegal aquarium fishing following the Supreme Court’s 2017 order. In one bizarre episode in September, a well-known Kailua Kona-based aquarium fisherman, Steve Howard, refused to tell DLNR authorities the whereabouts of two divers working with him once they intercepted Howard on the water.

The missing divers prompted a search-and-rescue operation in West Hawaii, but they were later found safe at a gas station with their diving equipment. Howard was arrested.

Members of the local aquarium industry couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Monday.

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