Hawai‘i Supreme Court Orders Halt of Commercial Aquarium Fishery

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The Hawai‘i Supreme Court unanimously sided with citizens and conservation groups who have been fighting to protect the State’s coral reefs from the aquarium industry’s collection and sale of reef fish and other wildlife.

Reef Fish. Big Island Now Stock Photo

In 2012, plaintiffs sued the State Department of Land and Natural Resources for failing to comply with Hawai‘i’s Environmental Policy Act and undertake environmental review before issuing dozens of aquarium collection permits annually.

In their decision, the Supreme Court agreed with plaintiffs, reversed the decisions of the Circuit Court and Intermediate Court of Appeals denying plaintiffs’ claims, and ordered the Circuit Court to grant an injunction prohibiting commercial aquarium collection pending compliance with the law.

In light of the ruling the DLNR announced on Thursday it has discontinued issuance of new aquarium fish permits and renewal of existing aquarium fish permits.


Earthjustice, representing the plaintiffs, says the aquarium industry strips vast numbers (possibly in the millions) of fish and other marine animals from Hawai‘i’s reefs each year and sells them outside the state. The organization adds that most of the fish captured are herbivorous reef-dwellers that coral reef ecosystems depend upon because they control algae growth.

“The justices unanimously agree DLNR’s practice of blindly doling out aquarium collection permits without studying environmental impacts is illegal,” said Earthjustice attorney Summer Kupau-Odo. “The law demands and Hawai‘i’s people have every right to expect more from the agency charged with conserving our natural resources.”

Plaintiff Ka‘imi Kaupiko spoke about how the industry also affects Native Hawaiian and subsistence fishing practices, “The fish we’ve traditionally caught for generations to feed our families are disappearing. Collectors take fish we eat—like pāku‘iku‘i (Achilles tang) and kole—and by taking yellow tang, they disrupt the ecosystem so that other fish, like uhu, won’t come in,” he said. “We mahalo the Hawai‘i Supreme Court for putting the brakes on commercial collection before there’s no fish left for future generations.”


Studies have shown that reducing reef fish and shellfish diversity impairs a reef’s ability to respond to stresses or disturbances. The Court’s ruling requires analysis of the industry’s impacts before any commercial permits can be issued and collection allowed.

“Taking tropical fish from Hawaiian reefs harms that fragile ecosystem,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director with the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re happy to see the court recognize that it’s time to disclose the impacts of the aquarium trade.”

Teresa Telecky, Ph.D., senior director of the Wildlife Department at Humane Society International, the international affiliate of The Humane Society of the US, welcomed Wednesday’s decision by the Supreme Court.


“The Supreme Court of the State of Hawai‘i ruled that the collection of animals for the international aquarium trade must be subjected to environmental impact review, which should spare millions of Hawai‘i’s coral reef animals. We have been trying to stop this unsustainable and cruel trade for nearly a decade. This is major victory for Hawai‘i’s wildlife and for people who rely on healthy coral reef ecosystems for their survival.”

Earthjustice said that the DLNR refused to study or acknowledge the trade’s impacts during the five-year battle. Earthjustice said the DLNR argued the activity was not subject to HEPA because the agency hands out permits to anyone who applies and pays a nominal fee-that is, that DLNR lacked any discretion to prevent the reefs from being stripped by unlimited commercial extraction. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, pointing out that DLNR’s failure to exercise the authority the legislature expressly gave it does not excuse noncompliance with HEPA.

Marjorie Ziegler, Executive Director of the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i said, “Thanks to the Hawai‘i Supreme Court, our reefs now have a chance to heal.”

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