Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, April 16, 2018

Contacts:  Summer Kupau-Odo, Earthjustice Mid-Pacific Office, (808) 599-2436,
Rene Umberger, (808) 283-7225,
Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 845- 6703,
Kirsten Peek, The Humane Society of the United States, (301) 548-7793,

Hawaii Court Voids All Existing Recreational Aquarium Collection Permits

State Illegally Permitted Capture of 250,000 Fish in One Year

HONOLULU— Citizens and conservation groups achieved another legal victory against the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources when the 1st Circuit Court — sitting as the Environmental Court — ruled that all unexpired recreational aquarium collection permits are void. 

The April 12 ruling invalidates about 131 permits, each of which authorized the capture of almost 2,000 fish, for about 250,000 fish in a year. Under these permits all of the fish could be taken from the same rare species and from the same location, including distressed coral reefs already suffering from ocean warming and pollution. The coalition of individuals and organizations that challenged these permits in court, as well as the coalition’s attorneys at Earthjustice, applauded this ruling.

There is currently no law limiting the number of recreational aquarium collection permits the state’s resource department can issue so the permitting scheme allowed for unlimited take. The department issued the aquarium collection permits automatically upon application through an online process, without requiring the applicants to describe what fish they intended to catch, how many or where. 

“These permits are invalid because DLNR issued them without considering the environmental consequences as Hawaii law requires, without even asking what each applicant intended to do with a permit,” said Earthjustice attorney Summer Kupau-Odo, who represents plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “DLNR’s duty is to manage and conserve, not be cavalier about, Hawaii’s public trust resources.”

“It’s well past time for DLNR and Governor David Ige to step into the 21st century and stop their magical thinking that marine life captured for aquariums can somehow sustain limitless extraction without impact. No other wildlife or ecosystem on Earth has been able to withstand such an assault, and Hawaii is no exception,” said plaintiff Rene Umberger.

“This victory is an important step toward protecting Hawaii’s beleaguered reef fish from the aquarium industry,” said Miyoko Sakashita, ocean program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “State officials can’t continue giving aquarium collectors free rein to disrupt and destroy some of the world’s most beautiful coastal ecosystems.”

The decision is the latest legal victory for plaintiffs Rene Umberger, Mike Nakachi, Ka‘imi Kaupiko, Willie Kaupiko, Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, The Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity — all represented by Earthjustice — who sued the state’s Department of Land and Natural resources in 2012 for failing to comply with Hawaii’s Environmental Policy Act and study environmental impacts before issuing aquarium collection permits. 

In a unanimous decision in September 2017, the Hawaii Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs and ruled environmental review is necessary before DLNR can issue commercial aquarium collection permits that allow unlimited capture of fish and other coral reef wildlife. In October 2017 the Circuit Court, in line with the high court’s ruling, declared all existing commercial permits void and ordered an injunction prohibiting the department from issuing any new commercial permits until it complied with the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act. The question regarding the legality of the recreational permits the state issued remained unresolved until today.

“The Hawaii Supreme Court set a strong precedent in its ruling last year that DLNR cannot ignore the devastating impacts of unlimited commercial fish collection on Hawaii’s delicate coral reefs,” said Anna Frostic, managing wildlife attorney for The Humane Society of the United States. “Thursday’s ruling properly follows that opinion, and recognizes that DLNR similarly cannot allow the removal of hundreds of thousands of fish under recreational permits in the absence of environmental review.”  

Earthjustice is a nonprofit, public-interest, environmental law firm. The Mid-Pacific office opened in Honolulu in 1988 as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and has represented dozens of environmental, Native Hawaiian, and community organizations. Earthjustice is the only non-profit environmental law firm in Hawaii and the Mid-Pacific, and does not charge clients for its services.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Conservation Council for Hawai‘i is a Hawaii-based, nonprofit environmental organization with over 5,500 members and supporters dedicated to protecting native Hawaiian species and ecosystems for future generations. CCH was formed in 1950. 

The Humane Society of the United States is the most effective animal protection organization, as rated by our peers. For more than 60 years, we have celebrated the protection of all animals and confronted all forms of cruelty. We and our affiliates are the nation’s largest provider of hands-on services for animals, caring for more than 100,000 animals each year, and we prevent cruelty to millions more through our advocacy campaigns. Read about our more than 60 years of transformational change for animals and people.

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