LIHUE — The State’s Department of Land and Natural Resources is drawing a lawsuit from the environmental law firm Earthjustice, claiming the agency has created loopholes for the aquarium fishing industry to continue unregulated.
The coalition Earthjustice is representing has been threatening for weeks to file suit against DLNR because the entity has continued to issue permits for aquarium collection after a 2017 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that required the industry to include environmental review before aquarium fishing is allowed.
And while the coalition points out DLNR problems with handing out permits for the activity, DLNR says they’re following the rule as they interpret it.
“Under current law, commercial aquarium fishing is allowed as long as collectors have a valid commercial marine license and are using legal gear and methods. This is applicable for all areas except West Hawaii, where all aquarium collection is prohibited until an environmental review is completed,” DLNR said in a statement to TGI on Monday.
Staff members acknowledged it’s the same statement they’ve been providing the public for more than a year —in the media and at public meetings, some of which included members of the coalition filing suit against the entity.
DLNR’s Dan Dennison said the entity couldn’t comment further on the lawsuit on Monday, because they hadn’t yet seen it.
“We respect Earthjustice’s right to pursue this matter in court if it believes that is the right thing to do. We have not seen the lawsuit and cannot comment on its substance,” Dennison said.
The lawsuit comes weeks after a January 7 letter from the coalition represented by Earthjustice, asking for a meeting to discuss current policies for permit issuance.
Earthjustice says they never got a response to that letter and that DLNR did not “take any actions to correct course.”
The topic boiled into the public arena with the 2017 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that commercial aquarium collection under permits is subject to environmental review under the Hawai‘i Environmental Policy Act. After that ruling, the Circuit Court voided all permits and ordered a moratorium on renewing or issuing new aquarium collection permits pending the environmental review process.
DLNR continues to issue commercial permits, because they interpret the ruling as banning the use of fine-meshed gear, which they no longer allow to be used.
The coalition represented by Earthjustice is made up of conservation groups and Native Hawaiians, including Mike Nakachi, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner.
“Hawai‘i’s reefs are the lifeblood of Kanaka Maoli and our communities,” Nakachi said. “We simply can’t afford to allow the aquarium trade to continue lawlessly, putting private profits over the health and protection of our public trust resources.”