(CN) - Hawaii is hurting its colorful fish and coral reefs by allowing commercial operations to take unlimited numbers of aquarium fish without environmental impact surveys, environmentalists claim in Federal Court. For more environmental stories, check out Courthouse News' Environmental Law Review.
Aquarium collection permits allow collectors to use mesh nets to capture fish and invertebrates anywhere in Hawaii except protected areas.
Permits are good for one year, and the Department of Land and Natural Resources issues them for recreational or commercial collection.
Recreational collectors can harvest only five fish or invertebrate species per person per day, but commercial permits do not limit the number of animals that can be taken.
"(N)or is there a limit on the number of commercial collection permits that DLNR can issue. Currently, DLNR administers approximately 160 commercial aquarium collection permits," the complaint states.
Hawaii requires commercial collectors to submit "monthly catch reports ... detailing the type and quantity of fish collected." But the plaintiffs say the state relies entirely upon self-reporting, and has not submitted a catch report to the Board of Land and Natural Resources since 1999.
Plaintiffs' attorney Caroline Ishida estimated that 712,000 animals were harvested last year, and 700,000 in 2010.
"But the department doesn't verify that people caught the animals they say they caught, which makes it difficult to know how many animals are really taken each year," Ishida told Courthouse News in an interview.
The Conservation Council of Hawaii, The Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity, and four recreational divers sued Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources in Hawaii's First Circuit Court.
They claim the state's lax approach to collecting permits is devastating fish species, which are essential to the health of Earth's disappearing coral reefs.
"The reason we went to court is that we want the department to gather the information necessary to make decisions about permitting based on science," attorney Ishida, with Earth Justice, told Courthouse News in an interview.
"The aquarium trade has been active in the state for over 30 years, but the state has never done any studies examining the impacts," Ishida said. "It's quite possible that there are impacts going on that the agency doesn't even know about."
Alton Miyasaka, with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said the office had just received the lawsuit and, "We have no statement at this time."
The plaintiffs say the state is violating Hawaii Environmental Policy Act (HEPA) by issuing permits for aquarium collection without analyzing the impact on the animals and coral reef ecosystems.
"The State of Hawaii is the largest exporter in the United States of species intended for the aquarium trade," the complaint states. "The aquarium collection industry primarily targets herbivorous fish and invertebrate species that inhabit coral reefs. According to DLNR data, approximately 75 percent of the state's aquarium fish catch comes from the west coast of the island of Hawaii' ('west Hawaii'), and 99 percent of all invertebrates caught in the state come from Oahu's nearshore waters.
"DLNR regulates the removal of marine species from state waters for the aquarium trade. The Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources ('DAR') is the division within DLNR responsible for evaluating applications for collection permits. Because collection permits require the use of state lands, which include the state's waters, approval of collection permits is subject to HEPA, which mandates a specific process whereby DLNR must require a thorough study of the potential impacts of collection permitting, as well as available alternatives and mitigation, before approving or renewing the challenged collection permits."
However, the complaint states: "DLNR has never examined under HEPA the impacts of issuing permits allowing fish and invertebrate collection for the aquarium trade on the scale that has been occurring, yet in its 1998 State of the Reefs Report, the agency admitted that, 'studies to characterize the effects of removal of reef fish on the coral reef ecosystem are necessary if this activity is to continue.' Studies that have generally addressed the role of herbivorous fish and invertebrates on coral reefs have determined that these species are important to reef health because they help to control algal growth and occupy numerous unique niches within the ecosystem. Removal of these herbivores can cause shifts from coral dominated to algae-dominated reef ecosystems, as well as decreases in reef ecosystem biodiversity. The selective removal of herbivorous marine life impairs and burdens reef ecosystems that are already under stress from climate change, ocean acidification, and pollution."
Ishida said that fish species such as the yellow tang, the Achilles tang, and the goldring surgeonfish, and invertebrates such as hermit crabs and featherduster worms are among the most popular targets for the aquarium trade.
"They are often sought by collectors for the same roles they play in the reef ecosystem, such as maintaining balance between coral and algae," Ishida said.
Collectors take more than 200 fish and invertebrate species each year, more than two-thirds of them being yellow tang and goldring surgeonfish, which rank No. 1 and 2 for collectors, according to the complaint.
The other species in the Top 10 list for collectors are, in order, the Achilles tang, the clown tang, the black surgeonfish aka chevron tang, the forcepsfish, the multiband butterflyfish, the brown surgeonfish aka the lavender or forktail tang, the ornate wrasse aka pinkface wrasse, and the orangeband surgeonfish, according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs claim Hawaii is aware that many species of rare fish, such as the butterfly fish and flame angelfish, are declining because of the aquarium trade, but the state has failed to "evaluate the environmental effects of allowing continued removal of these animals form the state's reefs."
The plaintiffs cite numerous studies that removal of fish and invertebrates by collectors threatens reef health by decreasing biodiversity, hurting the reef's resilience to stress, and allowing algae to dominate over coral.
These studies, and a 1998 report by the state's Department of Land and Natural Resources prove that aquarium collection permits must be subject to environmental review under HEPA because they show that aquarium collection is "one of the main causes of Hawaiian coral reef degradation with major impacts on Oahu and Hawaii as well as impacts on Maui," according to the complaint.
The plaintiffs say the department's "discretionary authority" to issue permits allows it to adopt rules and regulations to protect aquatic species, to decide which species can be taken and in what quantities, and to ban any activity that threatens wildlife or the environment.
It can also use its authority to make applicants prepare environmental assessments under HEPA if it believes an activity or action may have a significant impact on the environment.
But the department "has not issued any notice that it intends to require applicants to prepare an EA [environmental assessment] for issuance or renewal of any of the challenged aquarium permits or otherwise comply with HEPA," the complaint states.
Ishida added: "I think that right now the state is taking the easy way out and ignoring the problem instead of looking at what's going on and getting the adequate information it needs to protect the reef."
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment that the department violated HEPA by issuing aquarium permits without environmental review, and a court order voiding all permits until the department analyzes the impacts of fish and invertebrate collection on the reefs.
"All species play valuable roles on reefs, which are very vibrant and complex ecosystems," Ishida said. "We want the department to consider things like what is going on in the reefs, how many permits it issues, and how many animals are collected under each permit.
"We pretty much want them to study the cumulative impacts of issuing permits and gather all the information on aquatic collection necessary to protect the state's reefs."
Plaintiff Rene Umberger says in the complaint that she has made thousands of dives in Hawaii's reefs. She says she has noticed that many fish species popular with aquarium collectors are disappearing, and has "observed a decline in the health of reef ecosystems in areas that are open to collection."
Plaintiff Mike Nakachi, who owns a small scuba diving business, says he too has seen a decline in fish species and reef health throughout his 26 years diving on the reefs. He claims that aquarium collection harms his business "because it makes the reefs less attractive to customers, who go on scuba dives expecting to see vibrant, healthy reefs full of colorful fish."
Plaintiffs Kaimi and Willie Kaupiko describe themselves as a "Native Hawaiian practitioner and subsistence fisherman." They say the aquarium trade hurts them because they fish for many of the species that are popular with collectors.
Umberger, the Kaupikos, and the Humane Society have presented testimony to the governor and the Legislature about the need to review the permitting process and regulate the aquarium trade.