Moratorium on aquarium fishing passes first committee

  • Makenzie Adler looks at the fish in Quinn's aquarium on Thursday. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

Correction: A former version of this article stated that each aquarium fisher was allowed to take nearly 2,000 fish annually for the trade. That number is applied to recreational permits. Aquarium permits were not capped. It also stated that no aquarium fishing had occurred since the DLNR suspended the practice early last year. That has been changed to state that no legal aquarium fishing has occurred in West Hawaii, while take of aquarium fish has been reported in East Hawaii waters and around Oahu. The Tribune-Herald regrets the errors.

KAILUA-KONA — A bill that would have abolished aquarium fishing in Hawaii cleared its first committee Wednesday, but not before its purpose was significantly amended.

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Sen. Kai Kahele (D-Hilo) introduced Senate Bill 931, passing it through the Senate Committee on Water and Land, which he chairs.

However, he altered the measure’s original language banning all methods of aquarium fishing in favor of placing a moratorium on the practice along with the use of fine mesh nets or traps. The moratorium would be repealed on June 30, 2021 and a decision on the fate of the industry would be made then.

In the interim, an environmental impact study would be conducted by the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii, which was another of Kahele’s amendments.

“There has never been an environmental impact statement done for the West Hawaii fishery,” he said. “It needs to be objective. It needs to be with no inherent conflict of interest. It should not have any bias in it, and I think the only way to do that is take it out of (the Department of Land and Natural Resources) wheelhouse.”

The measure’s original language contends aquarium fishing isn’t in step with traditional Native Hawaiian values and cultural practices such as living in harmony with nature and collecting natural resources in amounts commensurate with the necessities of subsistence.

Kahele said he believes that to be true but added no laws should be passed solely on such a basis.

“I’m not willing to ban aquarium fishing on that premise because that’s a very slippery slope when you do that. And where does it end?” he said. “I think it’s a very dangerous precedent to set unless it is substantiated by a comprehensive cultural impact assessment.”

A cultural impact assessment is also part of the amended version of SB931, which moves next to the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

While Kahele’s edits leave some light at the end of the tunnel for the roughly 130 fishermen who held active aquarium permits in 2018, the practice is already under a court-ordered suspension throughout Hawaii.

The State Supreme Court suspended aquarium fishing in September of 2017. The decision served as resolution to a five-year legal battle after plaintiffs sued the DLNR for failing to comply with the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act by not adequately documenting environmental impacts of aquarium fishing before issuing permits.

Subsequent rulings by Hawaii’s 1st Circuit Court, sitting as the Environmental Court, upheld the Supreme Court’s decision and took further steps to halt the practice until the DLNR came into compliance.

As a result, no legal aquarium fishing has taken place in West Hawaii waters for more than a year. DLNR statistics indicate take of aquarium fish around Oahu continues and has increased significantly in East Hawaii during that time.

The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which represents the multi-million dollar aquarium fishing industry in Hawaii, commissioned two environmental assessments for Hawaii Island and Oahu, respectively, in an attempt to have permits re-validated. Those EAs noted findings of no significant impact.

But Suzanne Case, chair of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, deemed an EIS necessary in July after reviewing the EAs. The EIS, however, would also be commissioned by the aquarium fishing industry, which is where Kahele’s concerns of bias enter the equation.

“I have zero confidence in the aquarium trade’s environmental assessment, which I think was woefully inadequate,” said Kahele, adding he believes its EIS would present the same cause for concern.

As part of his amended measure, the state would put up $500,000 for the purposes of an EIS and accompanying CIA conducted by the University of Hawaii in concert with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the Aha Moku Advisory Council and the Hunting, Farming and Fishing Association.

Kahele’s amendments also mandate the DLNR create a Marine Aquarium Fishing Advisory Group “to monitor activities addressed by this act” as well as to assist in the development of the aforementioned EIS and CIA.

The amended bill calls for a report by the UH Research Corporation by the start of the 2020 legislative session and the acceptance of the EIS by the governor 20 days before the 2021 legislative session opens.

If Kahele’s proposed EIS ruled aquarium fishing sustainable, it would likely change the permitting process as well as what permits would actually allow.

Formerly, recreational permits allowed for the capture of nearly 2,000 fish annually using fine mesh nets or traps. Considering the number of active permits in 2018, upward of 250,000 fish could potentially be caught and sold every year. Aquarium fishing permits were not capped.

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Opponents of the industry note the DLNR has never imposed a cap on the number of permits issued. Those who applied for permits did so online at low cost and were not questioned during the process on the types of fish they sought, how many they planned to catch or where they planned to catch them.

“Maybe (the EIS) comes back and says the fishery can be sustainable but we need to further restrict bag limits, we need to change the whitelist species of fish, we need to change the method of collection,” said Kahele, who also broached the possibility of significantly raising permit fees.

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