KAILUA-KONA — A bill that would have abolished aquarium fishing in Hawaii cleared its first committee Wednesday, but not before its purpose was significantly amended.
Sen. Kaiali‘i Kahele (D-Hilo) introduced Senate Bill 931, passing it through the Senate Committee on Water and Land, which he chairs.
However, he altered the measure’s original language banning all methods of aquarium fishing in favor of placing a moratorium on the practice along with the use of fine mesh nets or traps. The moratorium would be repealed on June 30, 2021, and a decision on the fate of the industry would be made then.
In the interim, an environmental impact study would be conducted by the Research Corporation of the University of Hawaii, which was another of Kahele’s amendments.
“There has never been an environmental impact statement done for the West Hawaii fishery,” he said. “It needs to be done to take it out of (the state Department of Land and Natural Resources) wheelhouse.”
The measure’s original language contends aquarium fishing isn’t in step with traditional Native Hawaiian values and cultural practices such as living in harmony with nature and collecting natural resources in amounts commensurate with the necessities of subsistence.
Kahele said he believes that to be true, but added no laws should be passed solely on such a basis.
“I’m not willing to ban aquarium fishing on that premise because that’s a very slippery slope when you do that. And where does it end?” he said. “I think it’s a very dangerous precedent to set unless it is substantiated by a comprehensive cultural impact assessment.”
A cultural impact assessment is also part of the amended version of SB931, which moves next to the Senate Committee on Judiciary.
While Kahele’s edits leave some light at the end of the tunnel for the roughly 130 fishermen who held active aquarium permits in 2018, the practice is already under a court-ordered suspension throughout Hawaii.
The state Supreme Court suspended aquarium fishing in September 2017. The decision served as resolution to a five-year legal battle after plaintiffs sued the DLNR for failing to comply with the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act by not adequately documenting environmental impacts of aquarium fishing before issuing permits.
Subsequent rulings by Hawaii’s First Circuit Court, sitting as the Environmental Court, upheld the Supreme Court’s decision, and took further steps to halt the practice until the DLNR came into compliance.
Industry representatives themselves have said they take only about 20 percent of relevant tropical fish species. But opponents of aquarium fishing — divers and members of conservation groups, among others — often cite anecdotal evidence gathered with their own eyes that fish populations are depleted.
Popular opinion has proven heavily skewed to one side of the issue. The Humane Society of the United States conducted a survey in 2017, which found that 83 percent of residents polled said they were in favor of a permanent ban on aquarium fishing in Hawaii.