Despite a Hawai’i Supreme Court ruling last year that the stripping of Hawai‘i’s reefs of millions of fish without studying the environmental impacts violates the Hawai’i Environmental Protection Act, [Hawaii’s] Ige Administration continues to allow the aquarium trade to plunder Hawaii’s reefs and is actually encouraging the industry to operate wherever they can—as long as they don’t use fine-mesh nets.

An Oct. 27, 2017 court order declared all commercial aquarium permits “illegal and invalid,” but [the Department of Land and Natural Resources] (DLNR) delayed fully shutting down the West Hawaii trade until January 5. During those 10 weeks, eyewitnesses reported incidents of the trade capturing and exporting reef fish in substantial numbers. Department of Agriculture shipping data show that 51 interisland shipments of aquarium fish left Kona in November—double the number of shipments prior to the court ruling – and 133 boxes of fish have been shipped interisland since January 5.

Just one day after the West Hawai‘i prohibition was announced last month, two commercial collectors, long known to DLNR, were observed at the Miloli‘i boat ramp hauling in seven five-gallon pails of yellow tangs and three five-gallon pails of dark fish, with each pail containing 10 to 20 fish, representing a substantial wholesale dollar value. A witness reported the incident to DLNR and officers responded at the scene.

DLNR records show that one of the collectors lacked the West Hawai‘i permit which is required for possession of aquarium gear or marine life taken for aquarium purposes in West Hawai‘i. Penalties for that violation include fines of up to $1,000 per fish, amounting to upwards of $200,000 for the fish observed in the pails. DLNRs response to the violations was to allow the collectors to keep their catch for distribution and sale, saying the incident would be reported for “possible” disciplinary action. The department later defended their actions, claiming that only one person on the vessel needs to have the required permit.

That defense reversed DLNRs stated position that everyone onboard during commercial aquarium operations must have an aquarium permit. It’s one of many examples of how the Ige administration and DLNR go out of their way to cater to this trade that robs Hawai‘i’s reefs.

On the other hand, the reversal cancels out the “safety” argument used by trade members to argue against caps on permits. This was most recently described by aquarium trade member Ron Tubbs in a Jan. 31 WHT opinion piece opposing a state bill, SB2003, that would cap permits, phase out the trade and close the loophole the Ige Administration is using to keep the aquarium trade operating outside the environmental review process.

Kaimi Kaupiko is a native Hawaiian cultural practitioner and fisher in Milolii, Hawaii’s last fishing village. Rene Umberger is Executive Director at For the Fishes. Both are among the plaintiffs in the successful Supreme Court case.