A Pulse Check on Hawaii’s Aquarium Fishing Ban

13 Apr, 2018

Rhinecanthus aculeatus, the Picasso Triggerfish, one of several iconic species found in Hawaii. Image credit: Iliuta Goean/Shutterstock

Rhinecanthus aculeatus, the Picasso Triggerfish, one of several iconic species found in Hawaii. Image credit: Iliuta Goean/Shutterstock

Hawaii’s marine aquarium fishery has faced years of concerted and repeatedly-failed efforts by anti-aquarium activists to end the collection of fishes, mostly through legislative efforts. It seems that each year, the opposition got closer to finding success. The reality in this fight is that aquarium fishermen and state employees who study and manage the Hawaii fishery had to successfully defend the practice at each and every turn, whereas the opposition only needed to succeed once, in order for the entire scenario to change.

A Setback for Fishermen and Fisheries Managers

Ultimately it wasn’t legislation, but rather a court-based legal battle, taken via the appeals process to Hawaii’s Supreme Court after repeated losses in lower courts, that delivered a decisive victory for those opposed to the harvesting of fish from Hawaii’s waters when those fish are destined for aquariums. The Hawaii Supreme Court ruling, announced in September 2017, sent the case back to the circuit court. The First Circuit Court’s verdict, announced in late October 2017, brought the fishery to its knees, invalidating small net permits and demanding environmental review before these permits could be restored. Some loopholes allowed fishing to continue, though they made conditions more difficult for fishermen. Further measures enacted by Hawaii’s DLNR sought to close at least one large loophole, completely closing the West Hawaii Fishery in early January 2018. Since that time, aquarium fish from Hawaii have become scarce, prices have risen, and potentially hundreds of part- and full-time collectors are reportedly out of work.

Progress Towards Reinstatement

After months of relative quiet since the original Hawaii Supreme Court ruling, the arrival of spring brought Hawaii’s currently shuttered aquarium fishery back into the news with a fresh wave of updates. At the end of March, the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) in Washington, DC, announced that Draft Environmental Assessments (DEAs) had been created and submitted to Hawaii’s Office of Environmental Quality Control (OEQC). This was the first bit of good news in several months for the embattled aquarium fishery.

Earlier this week, on April 8th, 2018, the OEQC finally published the DEAs. Among the findings: “The aquarium fishery has no substantial impact on the coral reef ecosystem of Hawaii,” and the closure of the fishery would bring a loss of jobs and loss of 266 jobs and more than $2 million dollars in annual revenue to the state. (Link to full document below.)

What followed was a near-immediate response to this latest step in the legal process, with the Humane Society of the United States leading the charge to question the work. Meanwhile, PIJAC defends their work, and mainstream media outlets bringing their reporting to bear. The next step in this process is the solicitation of public commentary in response to the DEAs; instructions on how to submit comments can be found at the end of this article.

Here is a recap of the latest chapters in the ongoing battle over the future of Hawaii’s marine aquarium fishery. This story may be updated if and when future resources become available.

Official Publications from Hawaii’s Office of Environmental Quality Control:

The Environmental Notice, April 8th, 2018 – Two summaries covering the West Hawaii and Oahu aquarium fisheries are furnished, along with links to the full draft environmental assessments.

Draft Environmental Assessment, Island of Hawai’i, Commercial Aquarium Fishing Permits – This 180-page PDF is the full draft environmental assessment submitted by Hawaii’s DLNR, covering the West Hawaii Fishery, which is the main aquarium fishery in the state of Hawaii.

Draft Environmental Assessment, Island of O’ahu, Commercial Aquarium Fishing Permits – This 149-page PDF is the full draft environmental assessment submitted by Hawaii’s DLNR, covering the island of O’ahu.

Response From Vested Parties:

HSUS and Partners Criticize Draft Environmental Assessments of Hawaii’s Marine Aquarium Fishery – The Humane Society of the United States released strong criticisms of the DEAs levied by members of Earthjustice, For the Fishes, Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

Hawaii’s Marine Aquarium Fishery Debate Moves Forward With Environmental Assessments – PIJAC’s Robert Likins summarizes their efforts in support of Hawaii’s marine aquarium fishermen and provides a brief background on how the DEAs were created utilizing Hawaii state data, along with cooperative efforts of multiple parties.

Additional Op-Ed:

Hawaii’s Contentious Inshore Fisheries, By The Numbers – Dr. Bruce Carlson, former Director, Waikiki Aquarium (1990 – 2002), retired Chief Science Officer at the Georgia Aquarium (2002-2011), reflects on the shifting tactics of those opposed to Hawaii’s Aquarium Fishery and the actual, true nature of fishing in Hawaii, as demonstrated by the numbers.

Mainstream & Syndicated Media Coverage:

West Hawaii Today – Draft EA finds no significant impact to aquarium fishing resumption

Hawaii Tribune-Herald – Draft EA finds no significant impact to aquarium fishing resumption

San Francisco Chronicle – Commercial aquarium fishing could return to Hawaii waters

US News & World Report – Commercial Aquarium Fishing Could Return to Hawaii Waters

How to Comment:

The public commentary period on the DEAs ends May 7th, 2018. To submit comments on these assessments, contact:

  • Department of Land and Natural Resources, attention David Sakoda, 587-0104, david.sakoda@hawaii.gov, 1151 Punchbowl St., Room 330, Honolulu, HI, 96813.

Additionally, PIJAC is requesting copies of public commentary. These copies can be sent to:

  • Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, on behalf of Hawaii fishers, attention Jim Lynch, jim.lynch@klgates.com, 925 Fourth Ave., Suite 2900, Seattle, WA, 98104.

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About the author

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Matt Pedersen

Matt Pedersen is a Sr. Editor and Associate Publisher with Reef To Rainforest Media, LLC & CORAL Magazines, and is a Sr. Editor and Publishing Partner with Aquatic Media Press, LLC & AMAZONAS Magazine. Matt has kept aquariums for 38 years, has worked in most facets of the aquarium trade, is an active aquarist and fish breeder (both marine and freshwater), and was recognized with the 2009 MASNA Award as the MASNA Aquarist of the Year.


  1. April 13, 2018

    I wanted to thank PIJAC and all the other organizations and persons that stuck by us fisherman, and read the studies,and did there homework,and know the truth. Please take a half-hour and read the eas and you will see the truth
    That the fishery has been sustainable for many years, and will continue to do so.

    I would have encouraged anyone to stand up for the rights of the fish, BUT,only if they were being improperly captured or not shipped safely, but in the case of the Hawaii AQ,the truith is there to read. We have made sure our fishery is
    Sustainable, is safely taking as good a care as possible of the AQ fish.. A good exMple is a yellow tang living in Waikiki

    State aquarium for over 20 years.If you read the AQ fish forums you will see that MANY of our tropical saltwater aquarium fish live 3 to 4 times longer in home aquariums than they would normally do in nature.
    Mahalo (thank you)
    PS come visit or watch a video of the Kona side and see the healthy ecosystem we are proud of

    • April 23, 2018

      Did you even contribute to Pijac? You have not been part of the solution, you do not participate.

  2. May 06, 2018

    The impact to the fishermen in Hawaii is enough to reconsider lifting the ban on collection, but the impact on the future of reefs is even more important. If people are unable to have these fish and corals in their homes, they will lose touch with just how beautiful they are. People are only going to love and seek to protect that which they value. Without access to the few beautiful creatures that only come from the waters around Hawaii, people will forget them and no seek to protect them through conservation efforts. It is a good thing to regulate and control collection to ensure a vibrant and healthy ecosystem. All out banning any collection is overreaching, and ultimately damaging. Please allow access in a responsible manner to Hawaii’s marine life….thus ensuring they are admired by the whole world and encouraging people to act responsibly to preserve our oceans.

    Thank you.

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