Conservation groups, Native Hawaiian fishermen and cultural practitioners took legal action against the state Tuesday, arguing that the Board of Land and Natural Resources’ failure to reject an environmental impact statement last month by the aquarium pet trade will harm West Hawaii’s reefs and coastal areas.

Milolii fisherman Wilfred “Willie” Kaupiko, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that Earthjustice filed on behalf of the coalition, said he’s spent the past three decades watching the fish population rapidly dwindle and worries for future generations throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

“After everything we’ve done to try get a handle on this problem, it makes no sense for BLNR to give the industry a pass,” Kaupiko said.

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

In May 2020, the board unanimously voted to reject the EIS presented by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, noting 14 reasons for non-acceptance. Last month the BLNR reviewed a final revised EIS from the council but came to a stalemate with a 3-3 vote.

After listening to hours of testimony during its meeting in June, the Department of Land and Natural Resources told the board that there was enough information to make a decision on the adequacy of the EIS.

Board members Chirstopher Yuen, Samuel “Ohu” Gon III and Suzanne Case voted to accept the revised EIS, clarifying that they were voting on the adequacy of the EIS, not whether they support the commercial extraction of wildlife for the aquarium pet trade.

Yuen said the initial EIS lacked a clear “take limit,” and he felt the revised EIS included specific recommendations that addressed previous objections such as reducing the viable fishing species from 40 to eight and the number of fishers from 10 to seven.

“I understand the reasons that people don’t like the aquarium fisheries,” Yuen said. “We’re not judging that here.”

Board members Thomas Oi, James Gomes and Wesley “Kaiwi” Yoon were against deeming the EIS adequate — each noting a different reason for their rejection.

Oi followed Yuen’s vote and said that he did not see any potential benefit the aquarium fisheries could bring the state. Gomes agreed and said Hawaii would not have the necessary resources to enforce proper fishing practices. And Yoon said he felt there was an overall “lack of transparency” from the PIJAC.

“The discussions that I heard today, it’s almost as if science and culture were at opposite ends and there’s an imbalance in that — and by that very nature it goes against the very definition of pono,” Yoon said.

Despite the board’s equal split, Yuen explained that by operation of law, the EIS would be accepted on July 8 without a majority vote.

“If your first attempt at an EIS is rejected, you can try again, but the law is crystal clear that you have to fix the problems in the first one,” Earthjustice attorney Mahesh Cleveland said Tuesday.

According to Cleveland, the revised EIS violates environmental protection laws, does not meet requirements of the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act and fails to address the 14 inadequacies that the BLNR identified in 2020.

Unlike the opinion of the board members who voted to accept the EIS, Cleveland said that relying on PIJAC’s analysis could lead to reopening commercial collection in West Hawaii without proper disclosure of the environmental consequences.

Maxx Phillips, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Hawaii director and staff attorney, agreed that an inadequate EIS could cause lasting damage to Hawaii’s unique ecology, noting that the reef provides habitats for a myriad of endemic species, shelters islands from storms and slows sea level rise.

“The board failed us all by rubber-stamping this environmental study,” Phillips said. “The industry’s false narratives and twisted logic threaten to destroy these spectacular ecosystems, and we can’t let that happen.”

DLNR spokesman AJ McWhorter and BLNR member Yuen declined to comment on the pending legal matter. PIJAC could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

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