Hawai’i Aquarium Fishery Submits Plan for Reopening

11 Jun, 2021

Potter’s Angeflish, Centropyge potteri, is a Hawaiian endemic and one of eight species allowed to be collected under the latest proposal to reopen the West Hawaiian aquarium fishery.

In the ongoing legal battle over Hawaii’s marine aquarium fishery, PIJAC, and the Hawaiian aquarium fishermen that it represents, have submitted their latest Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) covering the West Hawaii aquarium fishery. Framed as a Revised Final Environmental Impact Statement (RFEIS), the 1,585-page pdf document dated May 26, 2021, and published June 8th, is available for download.

The document’s Executive Summary (included below) offers a complete timeline of the legal challenges that the aquarium fishery has faced and outlines the fishery’s latest proposal to reopen.

A Revised Aquarium Fishery

Should their latest proposal be accepted and approved, only the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area would reopen as a result. Just seven collection permits would be available, and only eight species of reef fish could be collected for the aquarium trade. These eight species were selected based on the following criteria:

  • No statistically significant population declines in Open Areas between 1999/2000 and 2017/2018 (WHAP data from DAR 2019a)
  • Recent catch (2017 fiscal year) of at least 100 fish (representing at least 0.03% of the total aquarium catch)
  • Open Area population density of at least 0.5 fish/100m2 (data from DAR 2019a)

A ninth species, Fisher’s Angelfish (Centropyge fisheri) also met these criteria, but was not proposed given its existing administrative status as a species of “special concern”.

In addition to the highly restricted list of approved species, catch quotas for all 8 species are proposed, spreading the total catch out equally among 7 permit holders. This creates a maximum allowable annual catch for the 8 proposed species:

  • Yellow Tang, Zebrasoma flavescens – 28,571 per fisher/200,000 total
  • Potter’s Angelfish, Centropyge potteri – 625/4376
  • Kole Tang, Ctenochaetus strigosus – 4,285/30,000
  • Cheveron Tang, Ctenochaetus hawaiiensis – 450/3152
  • Bird Wrasse, Gomphosus varius – 49/344
  • Naso Tang, Naso lituratus – 838/5872
  • Brown Surgeonfish, Acanthurus nigrofuscus – 114/800
  • Thompson’s Surgeonfish, Acanthurus thompsoni – 288/2016

What’s next?

At this point, the EIS is back in the hands of Hawaii’s Bureau of Land Management for reconsideration. The possible outcomes range from acceptance to outright rejection of the proposal and the continued ban of any aquarium fishing in West Hawaii.

Executive Summary

In October 2017, the circuit court ruled that, based upon the Supreme Court of Hawai’i’s opinion, existing Commercial Aquarium Permits (Aquarium Permits) for use of fine mesh nets to catch aquatic life for aquarium purposes are illegal and invalid. The circuit court ordered the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) not to issue any new Aquarium Permits pending environmental review. The DLNR has not issued new or additional Aquarium Permits under HRS §188-31 since September of 2017.

In January 2021, the court ruled that Commercial Marine Licenses (CMLs) for commercial aquarium collection were invalid as well, and the DLNR began the process of notifying all current permit holders that the CML could no longer be used for commercial aquarium purposes, updating the Specific Terms and Conditions of the CML to reflect that environmental review was needed prior to using a CML for commercial aquarium purposes.

The Applicant initially prepared and submitted an Environmental Assessment on April 8, 2018, evaluating the impacts of issuance of Aquarium Permits on the island of Hawai’i programmatically to any applicant over a 12-month analysis period. The DLNR determined on July 26, 2018, that preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was required, based on five significance criteria outlined in Title II, Chapter 200, Hawai’i Administrative Rules. An evaluation of the significance criteria, including the five identified by the DLNR, is provided in Section 5.6 of this document.

A Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) evaluating the impacts of issuance of 14 Aquarium Permits for the West Hawai’i Regional Fishery Management Area (WHRFMA) was published on November 23, 2019.

A Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) evaluating the impacts of issuance of 10 Aquarium Permits for the WHRFMA was published on April 23, 2020, and included a change to the proposed action, reducing the number of Commercial Aquarium Permits from 14 to 10. On June 23, 2020 the State of Hawai’i Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) published the FEIS Acceptance Determination of non-acceptance of the FEIS.

A Revised DEIS was prepared to address the 14 concerns raised by the BLNR in their non-acceptance determination. It evaluated the impacts of issuance of seven Aquarium Permits, West Hawai’i Aquarium Permits, and corresponding Commercial Marine Licenses (CMLs) for the WHRFMA, creation of a Revised White List consisting of eight species (prohibiting catch of the other 32 species currently on the White List), and the creation of individual catch quotas for each of the eight species on the proposed Revised White List was published on February 23, 2021.

Since the release of the Revised DEIS, edits were made (Appendix E) in response to public comments (see Appendix C), including editing language in the Revised FEIS to clarify that population trends are used as the measure of sustainability to evaluate impacts to fish populations, and edits to the proposed enforcement and compliance measures in Section 3.7.2.

The Applicant has prepared this Revised FEIS to inform the public of the proposed action (i.e., issuance of 7 Aquarium Permits, corresponding CMLs, creation of a Revised White List, and implementation of individual catch quotas for the 8 species on the Revised White List) and the impacts of the proposed action and its alternatives, and to incorporate information gained through public involvement throughout the entirety of the Hawai’i Environmental Policy Act (HEPA) process beginning in 2018. The Preferred Alternative includes issuance of 7 Aquarium Permits and CMLs for the WHRFMA, reduction of the White List from 40 to 8 species, and implementation of individual catch quotas for all 8 species. No Aquarium Permits or CMLs for commercial aquarium collection would be issued under this action for other areas of the state, including East Hawai’i, and collection in the WHRFMA would be limited to the eight species on the proposed Revised White List. Implementation of the Preferred Alternative would ensure the lawful, responsible, and sustainable commercial collection of eight fish species from the WHRFMA.

Aside from the additional conservation measures included in the Preferred Alternative, the issuance of 7 Aquarium Permits and CMLs under the Preferred Alternative does not include any activities different from, or in addition to, those that have occurred in the past. There would be no construction of permanent or semi-permanent infrastructure, no discharges into coastal, surface or ground waters, no dredging, and no significant use of hazardous materials that could be released into the environment. The DLNR’s issuance of 7 Aquarium Permits and CMLs is not anticipated to result in significant beneficial or adverse impacts to water and air quality, geology and soil resources, aesthetics, noise, vegetation, terrestrial wildlife, avian species, threatened and endangered species, land use, public health and safety, communications, transportation, utilities, or population and demographics from their current condition.

Populations of all eight species that would be collected under the Preferred Alternative have been either stable or increasing under historic annual collection (2000-2017, after establishment of the WHRFMA), and it is therefore anticipated that those population trends would continue under the collection proposed under the Preferred Alternative.

Two studies have concluded that the aquarium fishery has no significant impact on coral or the reef ecosystem. In addition, herbivores collected by the aquarium fishery typically consist of the smaller size classes which are the least effective sizes for cropping algae. One study found there were no increases the abundance of macroalgae where the abundance of herbivores was reduced by aquarium collecting, though turf algae is the primary food of herbivores, and thus healthy herbivore populations are critical for healthy coral populations.

The Cultural Impact Assessment (CIA; Appendix A) concluded that cultural impacts would occur if issuance of Aquarium Permits under an alternative would cause a significant decline in the population of a White List Species considered to be a cultural resource, either directly through the collection of fish or indirectly through habitat impacts. It is noted, however, that some believe that collection for aquarium purposes, regardless of impact or sustainability, is a violation of traditional beliefs. While seven of the eight species on the proposed Revised White List have a known cultural use for food, medicinal, religious or ceremonial purposes, it is assumed a negative cultural impact could occur if populations of any of the eight species were impacted. As detailed in Section 5.4, populations of the eight species on the proposed Revised White List are not anticipated to substantially decline under the Preferred Alternative. However, given that some native Hawaiians believe any collection for aquarium purposes is contrary to cultural practices, the Preferred Alternative may impact cultural practices, but the extent of the impact is unknown. Under the Preferred Alternative, negative cultural impacts in the WHRFMA would be less than the other action alternatives which include commercial aquarium collection in the WHRFMA due to implementation of the proposed Revised White List (32 species would not be collected at all in the WHRFMA) and individual catch quotas for the remaining 8 species. No negative cultural impacts would occur under the No Action Alternative, and negative cultural impacts under the CML-only Alternative would be limited to East Hawai’i. The Preferred Alternative does not substantially affect the economy but plays an important role as a nearshore fishery in the state. The Preferred Alternative would add an estimated $2.5 to $10 million over the 5-year analysis period (range of $499,416 to $2,022,686 per year), and another five times this value in indirect economic benefits. Loss of the fishery would result in the loss of income, tax revenue, and jobs.

Further Reading

Revised Final Environmental Impact Statement: Issuance of Commercial Aquarium Permits and Commercial Marine Licenses for the West Hawai’i Regional Fishery Management Area – May 26, 2021

Aquarium industry submits revised EIS: Fishing permits, allowable species to be reduced – West Hawaii Today

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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. June 11, 2021

    On first glance, an impressive 1585 page EIS. In reality, a weak 200 page EIS with 1385 pages of appendices, one of which (appendix C, I think it was) is a collection of public comments many of which expose deficiencies and biases of this EIS. Interesting how they dismiss the aquaculture alternative on the basis that it does not meet the applicant’s purpose and need, is too costly, and some species don’t reproduce well in captivity. Aquaculture would allow sale of potentially all white list species. I am aware that it is difficult, but innovation in the industry is needed and begins with the difficult work of breeding marine fish in captivity while removing one additional anthropogenic threat to reefs. This EIS should declare a desire and a vision to enhance captive breeding rather than suggest continued perpetual dependence on reef stock. I have a 180G and a 30G saltwater reef tank. I love it. I’ve learned so much and I my respect and admiration of the coral reef has grown exponentially. It has also exposed my ignorance and misinformation. 60% of my fish are captive bred specimens. I have not purchased wild caught fish since 2018 and never plan to again. I will continue to fervently support marine aquaculture in hopes that this action reduces pressure on a wonderful and fragile ecosystem-the coral reef.

    JS, DVM

    • June 15, 2021

      Jason, we hope that someday soon the marine aquarium trade and all marine aquarium hobbyists become as conscientious, honest, and proactive as you. It’s past time for the harm to wildlife and reefs, in service to trade profits, to end.

      • June 15, 2021

        Your comment is very selfish and based on emotion, as always. No one can become conscientious, honest and proactive if they see this particular problem that way, simply because without having the source we can’t progress and have other captive bred species available for future generations. The only reason we have captive bred fishes in the market is because one day they were fished from the reef. Balance is the solution, not your personal sentimental wishes of banning everything at once. The reef does not belong to you. Education, responsibility and balance is what dictates everything in our lives. Does golf courses damage the reefs with fertilizers going to the ocean? Are you fighting them? Why not? Do you play golf as a hobby? Does tourism damages the reefs? Are you fighting them? Why not? Do you bring tourists in the water for a profit? Balance, Mr. Umberger. Balance. Once more: the reefs aren’t yours!

    • June 15, 2021

      At the same time we will have a very reduced list of species, and number of specimens, comparing to what we had. This will increase the price of the fishes and therefore provide those species to the hobby at a higher monetary value. That will also allow competent hobbyists and scientists to try to breed those fishes, opening the possibility of future progress doing that legally. It is indeed a chance the hobby has to appreciate and work towards a more responsible future. Shutting down the industry completely, which is actually what opponents of this hobby wish they could do right now, as a final victory, will bring this hobby to an end. The solution of minimizing collection and observe the progress is something very plausible. Remember that if there was no collection of anything in the past, your lovely captive bred fishes wouldn’t exist! It’s a slow process that will only be able to come to past if fishes are actually available for that. Balance is the key. Try to be a “hero” is easy when you only think of the present.

  2. June 21, 2021


    Take it down a notch. Jason is only trying to promote the purchase of captive bred fish whenever possible. Of course wild caught fish should be available, but we should all try to purchase captive bred fish, corals, etc so that the breeders can afford to continue to make them available and do the research necessary to learn how to breed even more species. Captive bred fish are the future.

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