Group sues state to stop aquarium collecting

  • Four yellow tangs dart through the coral of a South Kona reef. (Barry Fackler/Community Contributor)

Earthjustice filed a lawsuit Tuesday on behalf of a coalition of conservation groups, Native Hawaiian fishermen and cultural practitioners, seeking to stop the resumption of commercial aquarium fish collection off the West Hawaii coast.

The 29-page complaint filed in 1st Circuit Court in Honolulu names the state, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Land Board as defendants.

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It was filed on behalf of Willie Kaupiko, a former member of the West Hawaii Fisheries Council and a longtime konohiki (caretaker) of the fisheries fronting Milolii Village; Kaimi Kaupiko, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and subsistence fisherman; Mike Nakachi, a cultural practitioner who leads scuba diving tours; For the Fishes, a nonprofit committed to reef ecosystems; the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity and Kai Palaoa, an unincorporated association of Native Hawaiian religious and cultural practitioners that practice, preserve and perpetuate Hawaiian religious beliefs and practices associated with the ocean deity Kanaloa.

“To restore the beauty and abundance of our reefs, the people and agencies must work hand in hand for the greater good of Hawaii nei,” Kai Palaoa founder and Kanaloa practitioner Kealoha Pisciotta said in a statement. “We are very disappointed that BLNR went against their previous decision and bent under the pressure of this profit-hungry industry.”

The lawsuit asks a judge to declare the July 8 acceptance of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council’s revised environmental impact statement on a tie vote by the Land Board to be “invalid, illegal, null and void.” The suit asks the judge to issue an injunction prohibiting DLNR from issuing commercial marine licenses for aquarium purposes or West Hawaii aquarium permits until a “legally adequate environmental review” is completed.

“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 in a statement. “These collectors, this industry, and now the Board have completely ignored that requirement; the Board cannot allow for reopening the trade without demanding that the applicants address head-on the many flaws which demanded rejection last year.”

The industry group revised its environmental impact statement after the Land Board rejected its first draft last year. The revised EIS maintained the group’s preference for an alternative that cuts the number of commercial aquarium fishing permits issued in the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area from 10 to seven and reduces the allowable commercial catch from 40 to eight species. The fishery management area spans the entire coastline of West Hawaii, from Upolu Point in North Kohala to Ka Lae (South Point) in Ka‘u.

Only yellow tang, kole, orangespine unicornfish, potter’s angelfish, brown surgeonfish, Thompson’s surgeonfish, black surgeonfish and bird wrasse would be allowed to be taken, under the plan.

The group, in its revised EIS, said the plan is based on the best available science, specifically addresses concerns related to declining populations and sustainable collection, and supports the industry’s lawful, responsible and sustainable commercial collection of eight aquarium fish species from nearshore habitats. A spokeswoman for the industry group did not respond to a request for comment by press-time Tuesday.

Maxx Phillips, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Hawaii director and staff attorney, said the land Board failed the people by “rubber-stamping” the revised EIS.

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“Hawaii’s reefs are the lifelines of our ocean. They put food on our tables, provide habitat for myriad endemic species, and shelter our islands from ever-increasing storms and sea-level rise,” Phillips said in a statement. “The industry’s false narratives and twisted logic threaten to destroy these spectacular ecosystems, but we can’t let that happen.”

A DLNR spokesman said it’s the department’s policy not to comment on pending legal matters.

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