News & Events

Hawaii Judge Halts Aquarium Fishing Until Environmental Review

Oct 30, 2017

Last week, a Hawaii judge halted commercial fishing of reef fish for aquariums until the state reviews the industry’s environmental impact. The Friday ruling by the Oahu Circuit Court follows the state Supreme Court’s decision last month that issuance of permits allowing aquarium fish collection must comply with the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act. The high court gave authority to the lower court to determine if the fish collection may be exempt from the law.

Reef fish from Hawaii can be found in aquariums across the world. The number one collected species is yellow tang, which accounts for approximately 80% of the fish caught for aquarium trade in West Hawaii. Supporters of the ban have called for detailed environmental impact assessments of how the yellow tang fishery and other aquarium fisheries have been affected by commercial fishing.

Currently, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources has permits issued to 231 active commercial collectors, and as part of the ruling it was ordered to not issue any new permits. Department officials say they respect the judge’s ruling, but they continue “to believe that existing aquarium fishing practices are sustainable and environmentally sound.”

CTSA took the opportunity to discuss the impacts of this decision with our Advisory Council member Richard Xie, who owns and operates Hawaiian Sealife. While it is primarily an aquarium fish export company, Hawaiian Sealife has diversified its business model and over the last decade has become an edu-tainment operation that has provided marine education tours for 200,000 local students and visitors to Oahu.

“Lots of scientists have already testified that reef fishing is not harmful if the government provides the proper management and guidelines,” explained Xie.

“The decision to halt commercial fishing of reef fish for aquariums has only invalidated the aquarium fish permits; commercial fishing licenses are still legal,” he continued. “Fishermen can still use a 2.25” eye fish net to catch fish legally. In other words, the fisherman will now have to catch more fish broodstock in order to feed their families. It might damage the environment more.”

Xie believes that the decision will definitely affect the market volume of fish originating from Hawaii, but as prices increase the ban is less likely to affect total sales. He expressed concern that a black market may emerge as a result of the decision, and wonders how the state will enforce the regulation since the determination is based on the eye of the net. “What will the cost be to enforce the regulation, and what will be the penalty for those found in violation?” he queried.

Xie mentioned that a potential bright spot in all of this is that aquaculture may be considered as a more viable option to supply the market demand. Researchers and farmers in Hawaii have attempted to grow aquatic animals and plants for the aquarium trade, and there has been some success, but for the most part the industry is fledgling. Xie believes that this new ban can be a turning point for the industry, “If the State is willing to provide funding, fishermen could become aquaculture farmers. If not, a black market might emerge and the State will need to spend a lot of money to enforce the regulations,” he concluded.