West Hawaii aquarium fishing banned pending environmental review

  • LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today file photo A yellow tang swims in an aquarium.

KAILUA-KONA — For the first time in decades, West Hawaii waters are off limits to aquarium fishermen.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources announced Friday an indefinite halt to all commercial aquarium fishing throughout West Hawaii pending the results of an environmental review.

A September ruling by the Hawaii Supreme Court barred the issuance of permits for aquarium fishing until an environmental review is completed. First Circuit Judge Jeffrey P. Crabtree subsequently banned all permits for fine mesh nets used in the practice.

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The DLNR decision to prohibit aquarium fishing in West Hawaii, at least for the time being, came after applying the Supreme Court’s ruling to an existing departmental rule stating a permit is required to engage in commercial aquarium fishing.

“Although the state permit referenced in the rules is not defined, the intent of the Supreme Court decision is clear,” said Bruce Anderson, DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources administrator, in a press release.

“Given the intent of the court ruling,” he continued, “any taking of aquarium fish or other animals for the commercial pet trade in West Hawaii is prohibited until the environmental review has been completed.”

Senate Bill 1240, introduced by state Sen. Karl Rhoads, D-Oahu, during the 2017 legislative session, was crafted to gradually eliminate the practice of aquarium fishing in Hawaii. The bill, which the Legislature passed, would have halted the issuance of new permits indefinitely and limited permit transfers, methodically phasing out the practice with time.

Gov. David Ige vetoed the bill, saying science conducted throughout nearly two decades didn’t justify the contention the industry was operating at an unsustainable rate and must be mitigated.

Anderson is abiding by the court’s ruling, but for his part offered testimony against SB 1240 that Ige partially relied on when exercising his veto.

The state worked to regulate the industry 20 years ago, establishing marine protected areas covering roughly 35 percent of Hawaii Island’s leeward reef areas. In June, Anderson said approximately 7,000 surveys were conducted in 17 subsequent years indicating aquarium fishing has proven sustainable in West Hawaii at current rates.

“Proponents (of SB 1240) suggesting there haven’t been studies done on this issue, I think those statements show a lack of understanding or an unwillingness to accept what has been done,” Anderson said at the time. “There are lots of things we can do that are much more effective if we’re concerned about the health of our reefs.”

Anderson said there were about 200 valid aquarium fishing permits in 2017, nearly half of which were frequently used. Most of those were issued to fishermen based in West Hawaii, where the vast majority of the state’s aquarium fishing is conducted.

Jay Lovell, an aquarium fisherman for the past 35 years, was outraged by the DLNR’s announcement Friday, saying that banning the practice while an environmental review is conducted will prove economically devastating to the dozens of Hawaii Island residents who rely on the trade to make a living.

“To be very honest, we’re (screwed). We’re getting singled out,” Lovell said. “I have a mortgage to pay. I have bills I have to pay. I just bought a car. I bought all this because I had a job because the state gave me a license to fish. Now they’re taking it away. I’m out of a job. … Nobody cares.”

He blamed the court’s decision, in part, on the insistence from animal rights and environmentalist groups that aquarium fishing is unsustainable and depleting marine life on the reefs, despite DLNR research pointing to the contrary.

“These people are not going to stop even after we get our EIS done,” Lovell said. “I feel the government is going to throw us under the bus because they’re tired of hearing (from) these people.”

After Ige’s decision to veto SB 1240, Keith Dane, Hawaii policy adviser with the Humane Society of the United States, said his organization would petition the governor to reconsider.

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Dane also cited a Humane Society survey that found 90 percent of state residents polled favored the legislation and 83 percent said they would support a permanent ban on aquarium fishing throughout Hawaii.

Email Max Dible at mdible@westhawaiitoday.com.

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