Photo: Yellow Tang fish in the reef
Lauʻīpala (yellow tang) is one of the species of Hawaiian reef fish highly coveted by aquarium fish collectors who will pay up to $250 for a single fish. Over the past four decades, millions of fish have been taken from West Hawaiʻi waters by the aquarium pet trade industry and, according to environmental law firm Earthjustice, fewer than 1% survive beyond one year. - Photo: Kaikea Nakachi

The Extractive Aquarium Pet Trade Industry Threatens West Hawaiʻi Fisheries

By Uʻilani Naipo

Auē, aloha nō e nā iʻa Hawaiʻi.

Aloha is not good enough for the world; the world wants even more of Hawaiʻi.

Hawaiʻi continues to be exploited and sold off piece by piece: our ʻāina, our culture, our identity. And the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) is determined to, once again, support the exploitation of Hawaiʻi’s reef fish.

Displaced from their function and vital role in Hawaiʻi’s marine ecosystem, our reef fish have been – and could once more be – extracted from our reefs and sent off to become personal museum pieces all over the world.

A Honolulu Civil Beat article (June 1, 2020) notes that, “Between 1976 and 2018, more than 8.6 million fish were taken from West Hawaiʻi waters for use in aquariums around the world.”

Hawaiʻis cultural and natural marine resources were repurposed and retitled “Hawaiian Tropical Fish” for the international pet trade industry. West Hawaiʻi has been directly and heavily impacted by the taking of millions of fish and the abrupt disturbance to the social norms of places like the traditional fishing villages of South Kona.

“Once the Department of Land and Natural Resources got involved [in this issue], the negotiated solution was to create the ʻWest Hawaiʻi Regional Fishery Management Area’ with ‘Fish Replenishment Areas,’ giving a carveout (at the time) of more than 50% of West Hawaiʻi nearshore reefs for aquarium trade collectors,” said Charles Young, a cultural practitioner and hoaʻāina (tenant/steward) from Keālia.

Today, Hawaiian kole (tang) are sold for $180 to saltwater aquarium enthusiasts, thus the pet trade industry competes with subsistence and commercial fishers who provide sustenance for themselves and others.

The same competing harvest pressures – aquarium collectors take the young fish, while fishers harvest mature adults for sustenance – give species little chance to reproduce and replenish their stock. This contributed to the severe depletion of pākuʻikuʻi (Achilles tang) in West Hawaiʻi waters, resulting in the current two-year moratorium on pākuʻikuʻi harvest.

Meanwhile, highly coveted lauʻīpala (yellow tang) sell for as much as $250. The proposed total allowable catch of lauʻīpala alone (200,000 fish), has a market value of $33-$50 million.

Ināhea lākou i oli komo ai?

If the Division on Aquatic Resources (DAR) can confidently say the proposed allowable take for the aquarium pet trade is sustainable then they, and the permit applicants, must inform and answer to those directly impacted.

Yet hoaʻāina of West Hawaiʻi marine managed areas have not been informed of the revised environment impact statement, DAR’s proposed recommendation, or the aquarium collection permit applications. Nevertheless, DAR plans to bring permit applications before the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR), requesting approval to once again issue aquarium collection permits.

An injunction against issuing commercial aquarium collection permits was in place for more than six years. Now that it has been lifted, DAR and the permit applicants have an obligation to conduct community outreach to the communities that make up the West Hawaiʻi Regional Fishery Management Area.

The cultural, ecological and subsistence value these marine resources have to Native Hawaiians – and the four decades of contentious, unethical extraction of fish from West Hawaiʻi waters – demands a sincere outreach effort to the communities being directly impacted to hear their manaʻo on these activities.

“DLNR has authority over public trust lands which also includes its oceans. Using this authority the DLNR leases thousands of acres of public trust land and issues hundreds of permits for all manner of ocean activities from commercial fishing to tour boating,” Young said.

DLNR’s stated mission is to “Enhance, protect, conserve and manage Hawaiʻi’s unique and limited natural, cultural and historic resources held in public trust for current and future generations of the people of Hawaiʻi Nei, and its visitors, in partnership with others from the public and private sectors.”

Inherent in DLNR’s mission is its duty to mālama. “This duty must also bind all to whom access and/or use of the Public Land Trust through the DLNR’s leases and permits,” Young added.

At issue is whether issuing permits for aquarium fish collecting meets that duty.

“This industry serves markets outside of Hawaiʻi where huge profits are being made from Hawaiʻi’s precious natural resources with no reciprocation to the many residents, in particular Native Hawaiians, who are being denied access to the millions of fish taken from their waters,” Young pointed out.

“Although aquarium fish collecting has been permitted for many years – during which time the industry has realized untold profits – I believe that DLNR erred when it granted the very first permit. Hawaiʻi’s lands and oceans are to be shared and accessed fairly by all its beneficiaries. Aquarium trade permits allow a few individuals to profit by granting them limited and exclusive access. South Kona communities agree that aquarium fish collecting is unacceptable.”

Pēia ka nohona Hawai’i? Minamina wale kā hoʻi.

As noted, Hawaiʻi does not benefit from the billion-dollar international pet trade industry, yet at the expense of our taxpayers and natural environment, DLNR is proposing the most highly managed – and doubtless the most costly – privatized fishery in Hawaiʻi.

DLNR’s support of this extractive fishing industry exceeds its fiduciary duties to protect fisheries for the subsistence and commercial fishers who feed the people of Hawaiʻi, and calls into serious question the motives of DLNR leadership in supporting this industry – given its stated mission to preserve Hawaiʻi’s cultural and natural resources.

Extracting reef fish for the exploitative pet trade industry is not consistent with Native Hawaiian subsistence, cultural, or religious practices. Permitting others, without the consent of the greater Native Hawaiian communities and hoaʻāina of West Hawaiʻi, is disrespectful and hewa (wrong).

Article XII Section 7 of Hawaiʻi Revised Statues reads: “The State reaffirms and shall protect all rights customarily and traditionally exercised for subsistence, cultural and religious purposes and possessed by ahupuaʻa tenants who are descendants of Native Hawaiians who inhabited the Hawaiian Islands prior to 1778, subject to the right of the State to regulate such rights.”

Therefore, the state has an obligation to protect the resources that Native Hawaiian customary and traditional practices depend upon. And DLNR’s mission is to preserve and protect Hawaiʻi’s cultural and natural resources.

In December 2023, BLNR approved a petition by hoaʻāina to enter into rulemaking regarding commercial aquarium collection – specifically to prohibit taking marine life for commercial aquarium purposes. As of press time, the petitioners are still awaiting DAR’s rulemaking.

Commercial aquarium collection unfairly commercializes public trust resources and exploits Hawaiian cultural and natural resources at the expense of our cultural values and our inherent subsistence rights.

Issuing aquarium collection permit(s) privatizes the extraction of our reef fish to benefit a few aquarium collectors and a small handful of local players, providing no economic benefit to Hawaiʻi.

Uʻilani Naipo is a lineal descendant to the ancestral lands and seas of Miloliʻi Fishing Village, Kapalilua. As a hoaʻāina of Kapalilua, she is a strong advocate of place-based traditional and customary natural resource governance and management. She serves as administrator for the Miloliʻi Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area.