The pet trade in a Hawaiian aquarium was a deadly business. We put an end to it.

April 20 2022

Renee Amberger did not expect A legal battle over the pet trade in the aquarium to endanger their lives.

It was 2014, and Amberger was diving in Hawaiiʻi to document the environmental devastation that occurs when commercial divers drench wild fish in the ocean to sell to home aquariums. While diving near the Kona coast, Amberger spotted two divers collecting fish from nearby reefs and began photographing them. Before she could respond, one of the divers charged Amberger and removed the respirator from her mouth. For the inexperienced, this move could have been fatal. But Umberger, a diving instructor with more than 10,000 dives, was able to quickly replace her equipment and surface safely.
The underwater attack underscores a long-running battle between aquarium collectors and those opposed to the trade. But the dive is a little deeper, and the conflict goes beyond individual actors and individual skirmishes. HawaiiʻState regulators, through their failure to protect public resources, are the main culprits in moving the waters.
Collecting commercial ponds in Hawaiiʻharm local communities and ecosystems, just as other unfettered industries such as logging, mining, and fossil fuel exploration across the country harm indigenous and neighboring communities. The climate crisis, along with the biodiversity crisis, is exacerbating the situation. Scientists say we must push for urgent and transformative change to address these multiple planetary pressures — or risk life as we know it.
in Hawaiiʻi, Earthjustice uses state laws to protect public resources such as the wild fish and coral they depend on from the multibillion dollar aquarium industry. With each win, we define what it really means to protect public resources in the face of multiple crises.

lethal operation

Stare for a minute in any saltwater aquarium, and you’ll likely be amazed at the sight of creatures swimming among the faux corals. The fine bubbles of the filtration system may lull you to sleep.
But behind this tranquil landscape lies a brutal and often fatal retail reef.
in Hawaiiʻi, which for decades was a major supplier to the world’s pet trade until recent court victories outlawed the practice, fish are often captured and punctured with hypodermic needles to release air and relieve injury from the fish’s version of “the bends”. Once inside the warehouse, the fish were starved for up to 10 days so as not to contaminate the water inside the small plastic bags they were eventually placed in. The fish were then transported thousands of miles away to another reservoir, where the same pattern was repeated.

According to the late Bob Wiener, a marine aquarist, less than 1% of wild-caught fish live for more than a year, and many die before they reach the pet store. By comparison, saltwater fish species can live for decades in the wild.

Illustration of orange and blue fish in a green fish net.  Water dripping with drops in the shape of the Hawaiian Islands.
Tang chevron in a fish bowl.

“These are wild animals, and yet they are handled very poorly,” says Omberger. “Fish like yellowfish can live longer than your dog or cat, but in captivity they die within weeks and months.”
HawaiiʻNative fish, many of which are unique to the islands, serve long-standing cultural values. Native Hawaiians often catch fish such as pacuʻwho – whichʻI (Achilles tang), a tropical surgeonfish with a stunning bluish-black body and orange accents, to feed their family. Prior to European contact, local fish were also used in religious and medicinal ceremonies – practices that continue to this day.
In addition, reef fish provide important ecological services by eating algae from reefs, allowing corals to breathe and access sunlight. Coral reefs, in turn, act as a buffer against ocean waves, storms, and floods that get worse with climate change. Known as the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are also major biodiversity hotspots, with about 25% of the ocean’s fish dependent on them. For example, coral reefs on the northwest island of Hawaii support more than 7,000 species, including fish, invertebrates, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals as part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.
But for $50 a year, HawaiiʻResidents can obtain a permit to take as many reef fish from Hawaii as possibleʻI water as they like, with rare exceptions. Between 1976 and 2018, the aquarium pet industry captured more than 8.6 million fish from western Hawaii.ʻI water for use in aquariums around the world.
After years of watching coral reefs degrade into “deserts” and the state ignoring the problem, Amberger came to Earthjustice for help.

Legal obstacle to change

under Hawaiiʻi Environmental Policy Act (HEPA), the state must examine the environmental, cultural, social and economic impacts of a proposed project before approving it. One day, Umberger came across a document describing the state’s attempt to exempt the aquarium collecting industry from HEPA entirely.
The lamp went off.
“I suddenly realized that HEPA was a real way that we could make a difference,” she says.
Soon after, Earthjustice sued the state for failing to use its power under HEPA to regulate the aquarium industry. Across the country, Earth Justice has been fighting — and winning — similar battles, as weak regulation of extractive industries threatens ecosystems and species already plaguing climate change. As the biodiversity crisis deepens, with scientists estimating that more than a third of all species could face extinction by 2050, Earth Justice is also fighting to protect key ecoregions such as coral reefs worldwide.
Throughout the initial legal battle in HawaiiʻI, the state refused to acknowledge the effects of the pet trade in aquariums or even the duty to study them.
“All of these lawsuits, in essence, have to do with preventing the agency from recklessly handing over permits,” says Land Judiciary Attorney Mahesh Cleveland. “People who are given the privilege and responsibility for looking after our public resources must know exactly what is going on with those resources before they allow extractive practices to proceed.”
To illustrate the industry’s impact on communities for state regulators, Earthjustice brought in clients such as Willie and Ka’imi Kaupiko, a father and son from Mellouli.ʻme. Small, secluded community on the western side of the Big Island, MulhouseʻI’m from HawaiiʻI am the last of the traditional fishing villages in a state where these villages historically abounded.

Illustration by Kayemi Kaupiko, hunter of Meloli.  Beige sun hat, pink/red shirt with white necklace.  Handcrafted Shaka in front of the chest.
Based on image submitted by Kaymei Kaubiko
Coopico Explorer, MeloliʻI’m a fisherman and teacher living in HawaiiʻI am the last of the traditional fishing villages.

“When I go fishing, I hardly see any kind of fish that the aquarium trade collects on the reef,” Kaimi says. “We live on this resource, we understand it, and we have a deep relationship with it. But these guys [the commercial aquarium collectors] They will do whatever it takes to collect as much as possible, and they will give nothing to society.”
The Earthjustice case finally reached Hawaiiʻi The Supreme Court, which ruled in 2017 that regulators cannot ignore the devastating effects of collecting unlimited commercial fish in HawaiiʻI reef. The court also decided that regulators could not allow further commercial collection until they had adequately studied the environmental impacts of the industry.
The legal win was massive, but the state continued to help the industry. Regulators even created a loophole for the industry to continue collecting without environmental review. With each attempt, justice lawyers brought the state back to court.
In 2020, the Earth is finally starting to shift. After years of legal defeats, the governor-appointed board of directors and historically exhibitors of the Seal of Trade decided that the Environmental Impacts of Trade in Western HawaiiʻYou are not enough. And in 2021, the board voted to reject the environmental assessment of the pet trade in the aquarium in OʻAh, another hot set. By rejecting the evaluation, the board deviated from its employees’ recommendations and echoed many of the flaws that Earthjustice and its customers identified during their testimony.
“Our environmental laws are about bringing them to the public, yet regulators have not contacted the community leaders who would be most affected by the proposed activity,” says Attorney Kayleigh Weiger Cruz, an attorney for Justice in the Land. “I think that was huge for some of the board members.”

sense of place

For the first time in generations, there is currently no legal commercial group for aquariums around the islands. HawaiiʻFinally, coral reefs have got a reprieve — and a chance to regenerate.
After the court curtailed the aquarium collection in western HawaiiʻI, scientists saw the largest annual increase in lauʻAn ipala (yellow tang) was recorded in 2018. Climate change is causing coral bleaching in HawaiiʻMe and around the world, reef fish populations can provide a life raft for diseased corals by eating algae and promoting reef recovery.
Less quality but tangible is the renewed sense of calm found in areas where collecting aquariums has been forbidden.

Illustration by Mike Nakachi if it was Kailu-Kona.  Blue plaid shirt.
Based on photo provided by Kaikea Nakachi
Mike Nakachi, Native Hawaiian Cultural Practitioner from Kailua Kona.

“Fish are eating air bubbles again,” says lifelong scuba diver Mike Nacache, who explains that naturally exotic fish like the kīkākapu (the Tinker butterfly fish) will interact with you in the water—if they haven’t been harmed or harassed before by collectors.
Nakachi and Kaubiko, both Native Hawaiians, want to see HawaiiʻI am where the earth and the communities with it are restored.
“Our vision is to be a thriving Hawaiian fishing community,” said Kaupiko, who teaches children in Western Hawaii traditional and responsible fishing practices.ʻme. “Giving children a foundation and an understanding of Hawaiian values ​​helps them succeed whether or not they decide to stay here.”

Kaupiko is also helping create a marine management plan to enhance protection of key subsistence species and increase self-sufficiency. Nakachi, who is also part of a lawsuit against land to protect white-headed sharks from industrial fishing, wants to see the cultural considerations in the aquarium’s lawsuits extend to other potentially harmful activities.

“Anything that is done on an industrial level should be under a microscope, especially in this day and age,” says Nakachi. “We only have these eight beautiful islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and they can only withstand so much human influence.”

Despite the current environmental crises, Nakachi remains optimistic about the future. He saw how the earthly justice litigation forced a shift between lawmakers and regulators in recognizing cultural values ​​and respecting a sense of place, particularly in a changing climate. He sees how lawyers for justice have successfully pushed for changes within the law that reflect people’s hearts.

“Having a culture, having this identity of a place, is no longer seen as a bad thing,” says Nakashi. Hawaiians aren’t Hawaiians without them ʻCountry, [which means ‘land’]And ʻĀina isn’t the same without the Hawaiians.”

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