Image: Some of the attendees at the BLNR meeting assembled to discuss PIJAC’s RFEIS. PHOTO: HAWAII BLNR LIVESTREAM

The past few months have been particularly active on the Hawaii front. A major step forward occurred on 8 July when Hawaii’s Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) accepted PIJAC’S Revised Final Environmental Impact Statement (RFEIS) regarding the State’s ornamental fishery. However, as expected, the response from the anti-trade lobby was immediate, opposing the approval as vigorously as we have come to expect.

To bring our readers ‘up to speed’, with all the main ‘to-ings and fro-ings’ that have occurred since June, I am reviewing these developments below, hopefully, in sufficient detail to present an informative and accurate picture of what’s been happening.

8 June BLNR meeting

“Long on talk – short on hard data.” These were the words of Dr Bruce Carlson in reference to some of the comments made by opponents of the Hawaiian aquarium fishery during the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) meeting held on 8 June, 2021, to discuss PIJAC’s Revised Final Environmental Impact Statement (RFEIS) on the Hawaii ornamental fishery.

Dr Carlson – who was Director of the Waikiki Aquarium for 17 years – was one of numerous parties submitting testimony at the above meeting. He was referring to some of the statements made by those opposed to the RFEIS who relied heavily on emotion and passion (very eloquently, in many instances) rather than on science and hard data, in presenting their testimony.

The whole meeting can still be accessed at: https://youtu.be/N-r26CzS-MI. It begins at the one-hour mark and ends at around the 6hr 27 min. mark. Yes, it’s a long, very long, meeting (with a couple of recesses for lunch, etc.), but it’s well worth listening to every single word uttered pro and against the RFEIS. I assure our readers that they will find it, not just very interesting, but highly revealing.

I was struck by the detailed and impassioned nature of many of the public testimonies, though not necessarily by their content in every instance. On the more scientific, i.e. more objective, side, I was struck by the downright good sense of the presentations, all of them based on data and ‘good science’, rather than on personal feelings or emotions.

At the end of the day, the BLNR Executive Board voted on accepting/rejecting the RFEIS and couldn’t come to a majority decision, with the vote going 3:3. One of the Board Members was not present, so we don’t know how this would have swayed the vote, but the fact remains that the result was a tie. In such cases, the document/proposal in question is approved if no adverse comments or moves arise within 30 days following the vote. This date came and went on 8 July, so PIJAC’s, RFEIS was officially approved on that day.

Following this acceptance, Bob Likins, PIJAC Vice President of Government Affairs, issued this statement: “The Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council is pleased that the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) has accepted the most recent comprehensive and data-based Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that we at PIJAC, along with a group of Hawaiian fishers dedicated to responsible collection, prepared and submitted for their consideration. We commend those Board members who voted to accept the EIS, recognizing that it provided all the information they were seeking to make an informed decision on reviving ornamental fishing and issuing commercial marine licenses. Since aquarium fishing was halted in Hawaii in 2017, the fishers and their families who depend on fish collection for their livelihoods have been suffering. We are optimistic that the next step for the Board will be to issue permits to the seven fishers so that they will be able to sustainably collect and trade limited species within the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area.”

This approval of the RFEIS undoubtedly constituted a significant step forward, but don’t let’s lose sight of what it represented. It represented the acceptance of the RFEIS as having addressed issues raised at earlier meetings. It did not, however, mean that fishing permits were now going to be issued to the seven fishermen. Far from it!

It marked the start of a post-RFEIS period in which several options would be discussed and voted upon:

  • No action – the current court order banning collection would remain in place.
  • CML-only alternative – under this alternative, the situation in West Hawaii would remain unchanged, i.e. no permits would be issued. However, Commercial Marine Licences (CMLs) would be issued for commercial aquarium collection in East Hawaii.
  • Pre-aquarium ban alternative – the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DNLR) would issue permits and licences allowing collection to be undertaken as was done prior to the 6 September 2017 Supreme Court ruling, including West Hawaii.
  • WHRFA-only programmatic issuance of permits – an unlimited number of permits would be issued to allow collection to be undertaken within the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area. No permits would be issued for other areas.
  • Achilles tang conservation – the DLNR would issue “an unlimited number of Aquarium Permits and CMLs” for the island of Hawaii. The daily bag limit for Achilles tang would be reduced from 10 to 5 specimens per day.
  • Limited Permit issuance – the DLNR would issue permits to just 10 fishers to resume collection within the WHRFMA. No permits would be issued for other areas.
  • Revised White List – the DLNR would issue permits to seven fishers to collect within the WHRFMA only. In addition, the 40 White List Species would be reduced to 8 and each fisher would be allocated a catch quota for each species.

Even the most casual review of the above (which I have had to summarise) will show that the stage was being set for discussions to be as heated and complex as anything that’s gone before.

The RFEIS may have been approved, but this is only marked the beginning of the next phase. The road to arriving at a workable resolution of the saga is going to be very rocky indeed. Opposition will remain vigorous at every single point along this route, so there is absolutely no guarantee that collection will resume anytime soon… or at all.


According to anti-trade campaigners, Hawaiian authorities are failing to protect the States’ reefs and coastal areas. PHOTO: JOHN DAWES

Rocky journey under way

To clarify matters, the 8 July approval was, quite simply, an official acknowledgement that the RFEIS met the criteria set down by the authorities at an earlier meeting where they rejected the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) submitted by PIJAC in February of this year. The next step (date, as yet, undecided) is supposed to begin discussing the various options outlined above.

It was totally logical, of course, that there was no way the anti-trade lobby was going to accept the approval without a fight… and so, it’s turning out to be… to no-one’s surprise.

Within a few days of the approval of the RFEIS, the anti-trade campaigners, working together in a coalition, fired their first shot of the new phase. This time, their attack was not being directed at PIJAC or the fishers, but at the BLNR itself, who they accused of failing to protect Hawaii’s reefs and coastal areas from ‘plundering’ by the aquarium fishery. Rene Umberger (one of the leading opponents of our industry) and her colleagues believe that, by approving the RFEIS, the Hawaiian authorities are failing to regulate aquarium fish collection, in violation of the State’s environmental protection laws. They (the coalition) are therefore suing the BLNR for this ‘failure’. According to Umberger, BLNR’s failure to reject this latest EIS is “a travesty for our reefs” and “BLNR’s lack of decisive action tells aquarium trade players that there’s no need to comply with Hawaii’s environmental protection laws”.

Nothing could be further from the truth! In addition, it would be very interesting to know how the campaigners define ‘plundering’, because they seem to ignore the inescapable fact that everyone, except the aquarium fishers, can take as many fish as they want, without restriction on numbers, species or size of specimens, for human consumption or other purposes, which – by definition – results in the death of all collected specimens. This couldn’t be in sharper contrast to the sustainable, controlled take by fishers, whose overriding aim is to be selective, collect strictly according to agreed quotas and keep the fish alive. Yet, they apply the term ‘plundering’ to the aquarium fishers’ activities, while totally failing to mention it in relation to these other extractive and destructive activities. How logical is this?

There is no indication, as yet, of how the BLNR has reacted to the lawsuit. They have, quite simply, not commented, just saying that it is a pending legal issue. So, as this stage, we have no idea how they are thinking, or what discussions, if any, have already taken place in-house.

However, PIJAC have been considerably more forthcoming, as one would expect. Therefore, reacting immediately to the above developments, PIJAC Vice President of Government Affairs, Robert Likins, issued the following statement: “PIJAC believes that the Hawaii Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) arrived at the correct decision and followed Hawaiian law in accepting the revised final environmental impact statement (RFEIS) that we and the responsible Hawaiian ornamental fishers submitted. It is disappointing that this superfluous lawsuit has been brought despite the BLNR’s ultimate decision being based on the abundance of data, resources, and specific responses to items identified in earlier reviews—all of which reinforce the RFEIS and support reopening the highly sustainable aquarium fishery. We expect that this case against the state will be unsuccessful, and we will continue to work towards getting the Hawaii aquarium fisheries resurrected and the fishers’ permits reinstated. It is our goal that these fishers will be able to sustainably collect a reasonable number of limited species—a trade that not only supports the local economy’s health, but more importantly, provides for their families’ livelihoods.”

This may sound perfectly sensible to most of us, but obviously not to those who have an anti-trade agenda. There is also no clear indication at this stage if the lawsuit is aimed at delaying the ‘options’ discussions I summarised earlier in this piece, or at attempting to get the BLNR to reverse its decision. No doubt, the weeks/months ahead will reveal further fascinating developments.


My sincere thanks to Bob Likins, PIJAC Vice President of Government Affairs and Gwyn Donohue, PIJAC Director of Communications and Public Affairs, for keeping me abreast of developments and for their valuable and prompt responses at all times.

John Dawes

John is a freelance writer and international ornamental aquatic industry consultant. He is a long-time contributor to, and supporter of, PIN, has written over 4,000 articles and contributed to 50 books as author, editor and editorial consultant. In 2005 John (along with his wife and business partner, Vivian) received the OFI Award for their “valuable contribution to the ornamental aquatic industry”. John is an Honours graduate in Biology and Geology, a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, a Fellow of the Zoological Society of London, a Member of the Society of Biology and a Chartered Biologist.