May 23, 2020, will go down as a key date to be remembered within the industry, for negative reasons. It was the day that Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) voted unanimously (by 7 votes to 0) to reject the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) submitted by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) and 10 West Hawaii fishers proposing that they (the fishers) be allowed to collect marine fish for home aquaria from West Hawaii waters.

The request was made to the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), but it was the board that was responsible for making the decision.

The FEIS consisted of a 2,000-page document, backed by details and statistics aimed at demonstrating that the West Hawaii fishery is sustainable and does no damage to the reefs or their communities. It also included several safeguards, such as provision for ensuring that there were no damaging discharges into “coastal or ground waters, no dredging, and no significant use of hazardous materials that could be released into the environment.” The document also proposed the reduction of the daily bag limit for the Achilles tang (Acanthurus Achilles) from 10 specimens, the quota established in 2013, to just five.

Despite the many arguments put forward in the FEIS, the board decided, after a four-hour-long meeting, that the statement did not adequately address the potential environmental impacts that could arise from the collecting activities of the 10 fishers.

This was in spite of some of the observations and conclusions contained within a report submitted by the DLNR in December 2019. For example, although the abundance of yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens)—Hawaii’s most popular export—was lower in Open Areas than in Fish Replenishment Areas (FRAs), where no collection is allowed, its numbers had still increased. Indeed, the report states that, “the population of smaller, aquarium-targeted, yellow tang has increased significantly over the last 20 years.”

With regard to the second-most-popular aquarium species, the goldring surgeonfish (Ctenochaetus strigosus), the report states that, although some population decreases have been observed, the species is still abundant. Further, it says that, as this fish is also in demand for human consumption, “it seems inescapable that non-aquarium harvesting activities are an important contributor to observed population declines in West Hawaii.”

Referring to those species listed from 3 to 10 in the popularity stakes (White List), the DLNR report says: “Interestingly, abundances were considerably higher in Open Areas for five of these species, while there wasn’t a consistent pattern for the other three species.”

The standout exception was the Achilles tang, which “declined in all areas, significantly so in Open Areas and FRAs.” Bearing in mind the decline in FRAs, it would not seem fair to attribute the decline of this species solely to the aquarium fishers. Indeed, no such claim is made. However, whatever the causes may be, there was a decline between 2008 and 2018, leading the authors of the report to recommend: “Given the overall evidence for a marked decline in the population of Achilles tang in West Hawaii, the existing aquarium-only bag limit appears to be insufficient to stem this decline. A reduction in the aquarium bag limit or a moratorium … should be considered.” It is this that led to the latest proposal in the PIJAC/fishers FEIS for the daily bag limit to be reduced to five specimens.

Finally, there are the “other” White List species. The overall finding was that “collecting impact … is overall relatively low, with 9 species having single percentage catch and 21 species having catch values <1%.”

Whichever way one reads the above figures and statements, none—in my opinion—represents a damning condemnation of the aquarium industry requiring the continued ban on all collecting activities in West Hawaii waters. Yet this is precisely what happened in late May with the 7-0 BLNR vote against the proposal for the renewal of aquarium fishers’ permits. This move, thus, confirms—and now indefinitely extends—the Supreme Court ruling of Sept. 6, 2017, and the subsequent ruling by Circuit Judge Jeffrey Crabtree on Oct. 27, 2017, deeming “all existing aquarium permits for use of fine mesh nets/traps to catch aquatic life for aquarium purposes (as) illegal and invalid …”

In the words of BLNR Chair Suzanne Case: “The unanimous vote clearly reflects the Board’s view that the aquarium fishers’ proposal, without meaningful limits on future catch, without enough attention to our highly depleted stocks like paku’iku’i (Achilles tang) and other low-number species, and without adequate analysis of near-future effects of climate change, ocean warming and coral bleaching on our reefs, did not adequately disclose the potential environmental impacts of the proposed ten permits.”

Clearly, the board’s decision and unusual statement has caused widespread dismay and some consternation within the industry, as the logic behind the decision appears to fly in the face of the evidence presented to the board over many years and, in particular, in the 2,000-page FEIS prepared and submitted by PIJAC and 10 Hawaii fishers.

In reacting to the BLNR decision, this is what Bob Likins, PIJAC vice president, government affairs, had to say: “The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council and its members are disappointed with the Board of Land and Natural Resources’ decision to reject the Hawaii Aquarium Fishing Final Environmental Impact Statement. The Council and Hawai’i fishers have spent over two years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop an Environmental Assessment and Environmental Impact Statement analyzing the aquarium fishery, resulting in thousands of pages of analysis and multiple scientific peer reviews. The ten Hawai’i fishers whose livelihoods depend on this fishery will be significantly harmed by the Board’s decision. The decision likewise has serious implications for other commercial fisheries in Hawai’i. PIJAC and its members will continue to support sustainable fishery practices, and use of the best available scientific information in guiding management decisions.” 

So, is this the end of the road for the West Hawaii fishery? Not a bit! This battle may have been lost, but it doesn’t end here. Neither PIJAC nor the fishers are taking this as the final word. As Bob Likins comments: “The first of the two Environmental Impact Statements was rejected by the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources at the end of May. PIJAC is appealing this decision to the Office of Environmental Quality Control on the basis that the EIS was an exhaustive document specifically designed to meet all of the state’s requirements for acceptance. PIJAC has also filed a Request to Access a Government Record in order to evaluate the discussions members of the board had, and the sources they received information from, during their decision-making process.”

Should the Request to Access be granted, this could be very enlightening, as we would then know how and why the board reached its decision.

Meanwhile, and even before this long-running West Hawaii saga enters its next phase, attention is being cast toward Hawaii’s other, and much smaller, marine aquarium fishery in eastern waters around Big Island and Oahu. It appears we are in for a lot more action over the coming months!


I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Bob Likins, PIJAC vice president, government affairs, and to Gwyn Donohue, PIJAC director of communications and public affairs, for their valuable assistance and for their prompt responses to my requests for information during the preparation of this piece.

John Dawes is an international ornamental aquatic industry consultant. He has written and/or edited more than 50 books and has contributed more than 4,000 articles to hobby, trade and academic publications. He is the editor of the OFI Journal and a consultant to AquaRealm, the trade show that took place June 2017 in Singapore.