Hawaii is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of aquarium fish, with a vast aquarium industry that collects and sells nearly a million tropical fish from the state’s coral reefs each year. This industry is both cruel and unsustainable, and it has placed Hawaii’s coral reefs, already threatened by pollution, climate change and ocean acidification, under even greater stress. Last week, a state court gave the beleaguered fish populations and Hawaii’s fragile coral reefs a reprieve by invalidating 131 active recreational aquarium fish collection permits that together would have allowed approximately a quarter of a million tropical fish to be removed from the coral reefs in a single year.
This important ruling comes on the heels of a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling last fall, where the court held that all commercial aquarium collection permits in the state had been issued illegally. Commercial collection permits are similar to recreational permits, but commercial permits authorize the collection of more animals per permit. Though the commercial permits were ruled illegal last fall, the legality of the recreational permits was still in question until this latest ruling.
The Humane Society of the United States, along with coalition partners, sued the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources in 2012 to challenge the agency’s unquestioning issuance of unlimited aquarium fish collection permits that resulted in the removal of approximately 4.5 million animals from Hawaii’s coral reefs over a six-year period. Hawaii’s coral reefs are delicate ecosystems and it is critical to maintain their biodiversity. Fish and other animals living on these reefs serve many unique and critical functions. For example, herbivores such as Yellow Tangs are most heavily targeted by aquarium collectors—yet they are essential to avoid algal overgrowth of corals and degradation of the reef. And heavily targeted invertebrates, including hermit crabs, serve important roles such as grazers, scavengers and cleaners.
There are also significant concerns about common practices in the industry that are inhumane. It is now well documented that fish and many invertebrates, like hermit crabs, feel pain. When fish are taken from deeper waters, collectors often use a practice called “fizzing” (also called “venting” or “needling”), in which they use a hypodermic needle to pierce the fish’s swim bladder and vent gasses. Collectors also cut the spines of certain fish to prevent them from tearing shipping bags and starve fish for up to 10 days to reduce the amount of animal waste in transport. Many animals die during collection, holding and transport—sometimes up to 80 percent—and survivors live greatly shortened lives in home aquariums.
There is little to no support among Hawaii’s residents for this industry. A recent poll shows that 90 percent of Hawaii residents believe that the state should limit the collection of fish for aquarium purposes, and 83 percent believe the state should end the trade altogether.
But despite the concerns and the lack of public support, the Hawaii DLNR has failed to review any of the impacts of aquarium fish collection, in violation of the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act. As a result of our litigation, DLNR has just published the first two environmental assessments required by law. The environmental assessments purport to analyze the impacts of commercial aquarium fish collection on the islands of Hawaii and Oahu, but they are flawed and fail to adequately consider the full impacts of commercial permits. They also propose that the unlimited collection of fish from Hawaii’s imperiled reefs has “no significant impact”—an entirely preposterous conclusion to make after only a period of months since the Supreme Court ruling, and with no new research presented. In fact, Hawaii’s resources managers only recently estimated that completing stock assessments and catch limits for only 40 species would require $10 million a year for 10 to 15 years.
The HSUS and its partners are calling on DLNR to require the industry to conduct a full environmental impact statement and thoroughly examine the impacts of these permits prior to issuing any more. Please join us by telling DLNR that Hawaii’s delicate coral reefs need to be protected, and request a better environmental analysis. There are also other important actions you can take as a consumer, including taking our Don’t Buy Wild Pledge. We are counting on your support, so please act now.