Anti-Aquarium Activists File Suit Against Hawaiian DLNR to Stop Aquarium Collection

Grazing Yellow Tangs

Yellow Tangs spotted off the coast of Kona

With the anti-aquarium legislation in Hawaii basically getting nowhere this year, the normally volatile hotbed of anti-aquarium activists in the island state has been suspiciously quiet. We haven’t heard from our beloved friends Snorkel Bob and For the Fishes in a while (sarcastic tone implied), but that doesn’t mean they haven’t been busy. In fact, they’ve been toiling away at their latest route to stop aquarium collection, which comes in the form of a new lawsuit filed just yesterday against the Hawaiian Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

According to various reports, the joint lawsuit by citizens and conservation groups is designed to force the DLNR to protect Hawaiian reefs and coastal areas by forcing the state to comply with its own Hawaii Environmental Policy Act (HEPA). This would require the DLNR to conduct environmental reviews examining the cumulative damage to the reefs by aquarium collection. While the reviews are being conducted, the suit states that all existing aquarium collection must be stopped and the DLNR must not be allowed to issue commercial aquarium collection permits.

Listed under the plaintiff section of the lawsuit are a few familiar faces, which include Rene Umberger, Mike Nakachi, Kaimi Kaupiko, Willie Kaupiko, Conservation Council of Hawaii, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Center for Biological Diversity. Besides the usual rhetoric, the complaint claims that the DLNR has essentially never complied with HEPA, which has resulted in devastating fish loss in near shore waters.

Interestingly, the suit doesn’t seem to hide too far behind the veil of conservation purely for conservation’s sake. Instead, the plaintiffs attack it from a recreational diving stance, claiming that the aquarium trade has severely depleted wild fish populations around Hawaii, causing “harm” to regular divers like Umberger. Yes, the “harm” terminology is actually used here, with the lawsuit claiming that:

Ms. Umberger’s recreational and aesthetic interests are harmed by DLNR’s failure to assess the environmental effects of the State’s reefs of issuing the challenged permits because she has noticed fewer individuals and a decreasing variety of fish species that are collected for the aquarium trade on reefs where she dives, and she has observed a decline in health of reef ecosystems in areas that are open to collection.

The other civilian complaints in the lawsuit are based similarly on observations and a perceived loss of income because of the aquarium trade and DLNR’s inability to control it.

We will be covering more of this new lawsuit as more details emerge and as we get a chance to dissect the legal documents associated with it. If you would like to view the suit, please visit: Earthjustice Aquarium Collection Complaint.


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  • There should be a counter suit – stop all recreational diving and sport fishing, the use of sun block, (perhaps also all costal construction projects and any horticultural activities resulting in run off)in HI until the cause of the anecdotal observations can be tracked down and the activities in listed in this sentence can be shown to have no impact on ocean life.

    • rbta

      great point, why doesnt their suit state anything about pollution or tourist harming the reef. how is it all the aquarium trades fault, i think they should cut all forms of harming the reef not just collection.

  • konalady

    The suit doesn’t say anything about stopping sunscreen use, runoff, tourists harming the reefs, etc. because, we who live in Hawaii see what goes on and by far the most destructive thing to coral reefs we see is fish collecting. I’ve seen a collecting boat break many yards of coral and then take a rare fish that I’d only seen once before.
    I use reef safe sunscreen & never touch coral by the way and tourists are not in deeper water harming anything. I live here and am in the ocean every day. I see the destruction caused by fish collecting and it is time for it to end.

    • 808Reef

      Do not say “we”… I do not want to and will not be grouped with “you people”. It’s disgusting, you disgust me.

      Just the aquarium collectors… nothing else? In the past 25 years over 500 MILLION gallons of sewage has been dumped in our waters of Oahu. []

      Don’t forget the medical waste that was washing up on shores last year? []

      I believe any activity involving the ocean should be stopped immediately Not just the aquarium collectors…

      Swimming, Snorkeling, Diving, Surfing, Para-sailing, Recreational Boating, Matson, Young Bros., EVERYTHING!!!

      I live here and am in the ocean every day. I see the destruction caused by you urinating in the water and it is time for it to end.


        Lets not forget the greater need of banning land development, agriculture, and people actually killing and eating fish (OMFG!) to save those reef so threatened and harmed as overwhelmingly evidenced by some lame ass bitch not seeing ‘as many’ fish when she dives!!! I dispise these retards.

        • Akua Kona

          To call a lady who loves the ocean a “lame ass bitch” and a “retard” when you don’t even know her is rude. She’s just defending her beloved fish and their habitats. She didn’t personally attack you. Mean!

          • Akua Kona, one person in this thread called someone names – not ‘so many aquarists’. Snorkel Bob is very good at name calling, and regularly engages in the practice.
            The problem here is that aquarium fish collecting is easily visible where the other significant actions that damage the reef are not. I understand the emotional arguments, but the science shows that the fish populations are simply not in danger from collecting.
            How do you ignore the stuff posted by 808reef above?
            “Just the aquarium collectors… nothing else? In the past 25 years over 500 MILLION gallons of sewage has been dumped in our waters of Oahu. [http://the.honoluluadvertiser….]

            Don’t forget the medical waste that was washing up on shores last year? […]

            I believe any activity involving the ocean should be stopped immediately Not just the aquarium collectors…

            Swimming, Snorkeling, Diving, Surfing, Para-sailing, Recreational Boating, Matson, Young Bros., EVERYTHING!!!”

    • You state that “I’ve seen a collecting boat break many yards of coral” but you also state “I use reef safe sunscreen & never touch coral by the way and tourists are not in deeper water harming anything.”… How big are these collecting boats that touch corals in the “deep” water you talk about?

      How do you account for people that have no idea about reef-safe sunscreens? Does that type of sunscreen magically stay away from corals in nearby waters?

      Does agricultural pollution, magically, stay away as well? What about recreational fishing that targets the largest and most productive members of the species?

      I’m not in favor of any type of “rape and pillage” of any environment but all factors must be considered. Not just the ones you’re opposed to on a personal level.

    • I would like to read your reply to the comments above. I would also like to hear your reply on the scientifically backed data that states fish populations are not declining. This is proof from scientific data, not hearsay. I guess you want all of the butterfly fish out of the waters as well, since they eat coral….

  • If the people who live in Hawaii want to ban the ornamental fish trade then who are we as Non Residents to say no they cant. Is a fish in our aquarium bigger deal than what residents in that state request…They voted their local officials to represent them not us. It is Hawaii’s wildlife not ours. I know I would be upset if someone not from Texas would tell us Texans what is good for us to do.

    • Hawaii_fisherman

      Yeah, but a lot of the people who are trying to ban the aquarium fishery, including the people who are funding this lawsuit, are also from out of state. Snorkel Bob doesn’t even live on an island where the aquarium fishery is active! Earthjustice, Center for Biological Diversity, and HSUS are all wealthy non-profits from the mainland who seem to care more for their own pocketbook than the environment and have little to no representation in our community. There’s nothing wrong with a mainland aquarist like you wanting to keep your fish, considering that the people who are trying to take them away are also from the mainland.

      • Akua Kona

        I’m sorry for you but you are incorrect. Mike Nakachi, Kaimi & Willie Kaupiko are all from Hawaii. Born and raised I believe. Rene has dived over 10,00 times in Hawaii. The Humane Society has (over 55,000 for HSUS) members in Hawaii as do all other groups mentioed in the suit. Earthjustice represents the entire planet and the attorneys involved in this case live in Hawaii. Are healthy reefs and fish populations a bad thing for Hawaii? I would think we would all benefit from healthy reefs. Capturing fish to live shortened lives in tanks, to be used as “entertainment” and ornaments is not beautiful.

        • Hawaii_fisherman

          I know that those people you mentioned are from Hawaii. So are the people who earn a living from the aquarium industry, the thousands of people who have aquariums inside the state, and the hundreds of thousands of people who enjoy fishing. Meanwhile, a lot of the people who want to get rid of aquariums in Hawaii, especially those who appear to be spending the most money, are from the mainland. Just because somebody disagrees with you doesn’t mean there’s a double standard.

          Healthy reefs and fish populations are indeed a good thing for Hawaii, including aquarium fishermen and those who depend on them for their pets. If you actually get to know some of these fishermen, you will find out that they love the ocean just as much as you do, and are willing to work with other people to make sure that it can be conserved for everybody. The ocean is big enough to share.

          Also, please understand that aquarists see their animals as pets, not as “entertainment” or “ornaments”.

  • konalady

    If you do not live here you have no idea. Poachers have been busted for collecting in closed areas. Why would they do that? Because the fish they want are all gone from areas open to collection. Do you know a fish collector dragged his anchor over coral as he moved his boat, leaving the anchor on the reef, in West Hawaii this year? Reef safe sunscreen is available. Tourists are not snorkeling in deep water where boats go and even if they do they cannot even reach the bottom 30 feet below them. Do some research people. If you care about anything but having your aquarium that is. I live in West Hawaii and we don’t have much runoff, just clear water and dwindling fish populations. The only people who don’t see the dwindling fish populations are those who make money off of our fish. And Snorkel Bob lives on Maui and frequently visits the Big Island waters. I am telling you, collecting boats are destroying our coral and the removal of fish who live on the reef, feeding on algae etc. is going to cause a collapse of entire coral reef systems one day and no one knows when. Save our reefs for the children if you cannot do it for yourselves.

    • Hawaii_fisherman

      Yes, I do live in Hawaii, thanks very much, and I care a great deal about the ocean. So do the aquarium fishermen here, many of whom were born & raised on the island, grew up learning how to fish responsibly, and depend on healthy reefs for their livelihood. Even though the state is doing its best to regulate the fishery properly, and the fishermen are willing to work with the community, limit their activities, and promote better fishing regulations, these mainland activists will stop at nothing to block those regulations and push for a complete ban. Why can’t you accept any kind of compromise? That’s not the Hawaiian way. The fish collectors have already been pushed out of 1/3 of the coastline on the Big Island, so there should be more than enough room for you to enjoy the ocean without worrying about people catching your fish.

      Even if you don’t like aquariums, this lawsuit is bad for anybody who enjoys the ocean. If it succeeds, it will be possible to sue the state to stop all kinds of activities that currently don’t require environmental review – including snorkel & dive tours. The implications of this on the tour industry are not good.

      Also, you’re calling the kettle black – snorkel tour boats are the worst offenders when it comes to coral damage, both by dropping anchor on the reef and by putting hordes of bad swimmers into delicate areas. Nobody is perfect and it does no good to point fingers. Here is just one example:

      • Akua Kona

        The lawsuit is about fish collection only. I never said I do not like aquariums. I own 2 myself. They are freshwater and captive bred fish which is what needs to happen with saltwater aquariums. Many boats drop anchors on coral and I have reported fish collecting boats and snorkel boats doing this. That is not unlawful as DLNR has told me but it is a practice that ocean aware people do not support and I believe should not be allowed. The problem is collectors are removing fish from the reef who have jobs there. When their jobs such as cleaning algae or parasites off of the reef and fish cannot be done because they are no longer there, the entire ecosystem is in danger. No one knows when but more study needs to be done before this continues and that is what the lawsuit is about, removing fish for entertainment not viewing them diving and snorkeling or by using them as food. You fail to mention the cases this year of poachers caught in restricted areas and of the case of a fish collecting boat leaving his anchor on the bottom as he dragged it as he moved his boat to another area because some recreational divers swam by. It’s all online if you do a bit of research. Why do the poachers have to collect in restricted areas? I wonder if it is because the fish they want are all gone in open areas. Is that what any aquarist wants as a byproduct of his hobby? I wouldn’t think so but you never know……

        • Hawaii_fisherman

          Actually no – the lawsuit also targets recreational aquarium permits, not just the commercial licenses, so if it succeeds it would be against the law for anybody to catch a fish, take it home, and keep it as a pet. Meanwhile, the same person could take the same fish and kill it for no reason – which would still be legal. Sorry, but that’s messed up.

          FYI, the aquarium fishery and its impacts already have been studied very well – more so than any other fishery in the state. The populations of aquarium fish are not declining, nor has there been any impact to the health of the reef in areas open to fish collecting vs closed areas. – the science is very clear on that. The number of herbivorous fish that are taken each year isn’t enough to cause harm to the ecosystem.

          Note that the amount of fish (including herbivores) taken by the aquarium industry is miniscule compared with the number that are taken for food – saying that taking fish for pets is killing the reef but that eating them is OK is blatantly wrong if this truly is an environmental issue. If the lawsuit succeeds it will have serious consequences for anybody who goes fishing, and in the long run it will hurt the tour industry as well.

          I am well aware that there was a poaching case last year. Those guys were caught, charged, and had their boat confiscated. Dragging an anchor through coral is also illegal and just plain wrong. However, those are criminals – it’s not how the majority of aquarium fishermen behave. Nearly all of them have no trouble earning a living by doing things the right way, following the law, and supporting better fishing regulations. There are just as many “bad apples” in the tour industry. You can’t point fingers at an entire group, just because one or two individuals misbehave.

          • Akua Kona

            The lawsuit does Not target recreational fisherman, divers or recreational collecting permits. You are using scare tactics and misinformation and I’m sorry but I am not into arguing with you any longer. I love Hawaii with all my heart, the ocean, the coral reefs and the fish, the mountains, the rainbows, the people; enough to speak out for them and that’s why I wrote. I am happy that a lawsuit has been filed for the fish who cannot speak for themselves yet I have known all along that some people only hear what they want to hear and this “discussion” could go on and on and on……..

          • Hawaii_fisherman

            Um, misinformation and scare tactics? Sorry, but that’s exactly what the proponents of this lawsuit are doing. The claims that the aquarium fishery is destroying the reef are false, and not borne out by science. Even if there is a problem, this is not the way to deal with it – just banning something with no possibility of compromise is not right.

            I love Hawaii too – easily as much as you do. So do the people who earn a living by catching fish. We are all in this together, whether we like it or not. If people keep hating each other like this, nothing will get better.

            Please read the lawsuit again – it seeks to stop the issuance of all aquarium permits, including those for recreational collecting. It doesn’t explicitly target recreational fishermen, but if the state is forced to do an EIS on the impacts of fishing, it’s not possible to discriminate between whether or not the fish is being eaten or kept in an aquarium. It will end up affecting all fishermen eventually.

          • We know the lawsuit doesn’t target recreational fishing or diving…but, if the point is to protect the animals, it should as those activities have been shown to directly impact the health of the animals.

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