On some reefs in West Hawai’i, a quizzical-looking fish can be seen swimming in large schools in shallow waters. Flowing back and forth in the surge, the brilliant yellow fish resemble golden leaves fluttering in the wind. These industrious fish, known as Lau’ipala in Hawaiian, scour the coral and lava rocks for algae, keeping the reef clean. Sometimes these fish can be seen in schools so dense, that from the beach, the waves look golden. The Hawaiian name for this fish means, appropriately, “yellow ti leaf”. Yellow tangs, Zebrasoma flavescens, are a reef fish ranging in coastal waters west of Hawai’i to east of Japan in the Pacific Ocean. These fish live most abundantly off the coast of Hawaii, but are also found in the more western ranges of their habitat, including the islands of Marcus, Mariana, Marshall, Ryukyu and Wake. They only occur in large numbers in the Hawaiian Islands.
A Price on Their Head
Due to its bright color and behavior, the yellow tang is also one of the most popular marine aquarium fish. Collected in the wild, Yellow Tangs can bring some of the highest prices for fish in the aquarium live fish trade.
Prices from online dealers, including the major distributer PetCo, lists prices from $165 to as high as $700 for select reef fish species collected in the wild. This demand, driven in part by huge aquariums in restaurants, casinos and high end homes, has created a nefarious industry ranging from barely regulated collection under permit to outreach black market poaching of wild caught fish.
Biology of Yellow Tangs
Yellow tangs spawn eggs and milt into the water around the full moon. Fertilized eggs begin their life as plankton in open water. After hatching, the clear, planktonic larvae develop an oval body around 1.5mm, with their dorsal and ventral fins, and spines (a fingernail is around 0.5 mm thick). Currents carry the developing larvae to coral reefs where they can take refuge and continue to develop and grow.
One study showed that yellow tangs in marine reserves can seed other Hawaii reefs 100 miles away!
Like other surgeonfish and tangs in the Acanthuridae, yellow tangs have a sharp spine on both sides of the tail that can be used for defense or aggression. These and other reef herbivores also provide an important source of food for predatory fish including reef sharks.
Yellow tangs that survive to adulthood can grow to 20 cm (around 8 inches) and live more than 30 years in the wild. In captivity, the fish that survive collection and transportation survive around 10 years. Also, mortality in catch, during transfer and in transit in small bags in coolers via aircraft is very high, estimated to be 50% or even higher. According to Earth Justice, between 1976 and 2018, the aquarium pet industry took more than 8.6 million fish from West Hawaiʻi waters for use in aquariums around the world. These facts and others depicted in the documentary The Dark Hobby, demonstrate aquarium collectors over-harvesting or using damaging techniques to collect fish caused a dramatic decline of several reef fish species in Hawaii.
The Legal Motion
As early as 2012 a coalition of conservation groups, native Hawaiian fishers, and cultural practitioners took legal action to require the Hawai‘i Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) to protect West Hawai‘i’s reefs and coastal areas from commercial extraction of fish and other wildlife for the aquarium pet trade. In a complaint filed on their behalf by Earthjustice, the coalition challenged BLNR’s failure to reject the latest environmental impact statement submitted by trade representatives, which they say violates state environmental protection laws. Beginning with a suspension of all licenses to collect for aquarium purposes, several appeals and rulings have occurred over the years to manage the West Hawaii reef fish extraction for the aquarium trade.
Citizens and conservation groups took legal action to require the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources to protect Hawaiʻi’s reefs and coastal areas from unlimited collection of fish and other wildlife for the aquarium trade. Specifically, the groups asked the DLNR to conduct environmental reviews—including an examination of cumulative damage to the state’s reefs—before granting permits that allow unlimited aquarium collection of marine wildlife in coastal waters.
The BLNR is a board responsible for executing the Department of Land and Natural Resources mission.
The DLNR’s mission is to “Enhance, protect, conserve and manage Hawaii’s unique and limited natural, cultural and historic resources held in public trust for current and future generations of the people of Hawaii nei, and its visitors, in partnership with others from the public and private sectors.”
The BLNR is composed of seven members: one from each of the four land districts (O‘ahu, Hawai‘i Island, Maui Nui, Kaua‘i), two at large, and the Chair, who is also the executive head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources. The BLNR convenes to review and take action on submittals from department staff, including land leases and Conservation District Use Applications (CDUAs).
Earthjustice filed the complaint under the Hawaiʻi Environmental Policy Act in the First Circuit Court on behalf of Rene Umberger, Mike Nakachi, Ka’imi Kaupiko, Willie Kaupiko, Conservation Council for Hawaiʻi, The Humane Society of the United States, and the Center for Biological Diversity.
In 2017, the Hawaiʻi Supreme Court ruled that regulators can’t ignore the devastating impacts of unlimited commercial fish collection on Hawaiʻi’s reefs. The court also determined that regulators can’t allow more commercial collection until they adequately study the industry’s environmental impacts.
However, State regulators created a loophole for the industry to keep collecting while the industry conducted their environmental review. Throughout the five-year legal battle, DLNR refused to acknowledge the trade’s impacts or even seriously study it. Instead, DLNR argued the activity was not subject to HEPA because the agency issues permits to anyone who applies for a permit. This too was challenged in court.
In May 2020, the Hawaiʻi BLNR (a department under the State DLNR) declined to accept the initial Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC). Much of the scientific grounds in the EIS were rejected by reviewers in the environmental community and considered the EIS inadequate. One year later, the aquarium fishers revised the study, and presented a Revised Final Environmental Impact Statement (RFEIS) to the board, which resulted in a 3-3 voting impasse in June 2021.
An obscure arrangement in the DLNR proceedings provides for a tie vote to become valid if the board does not meet within 30 days of the original vote, (which the board did not). The statutory acceptance of the RFEIS took place on July 8, 2021, after an official vote by the Hawaiʻi Board of Land and Natural Resources ended in a tie in the absence of Chair Susan Case. Again challenged, the decision was referred to the court for a decision on the validity of the RFEIS.
In 2022, the RFEIS was approved by the court concerning aquarium fishing in West Hawaiʻi, with a notice officially published in the October 8, 2022 edition of The Environmental Notice. The RFEIS opens the door to the possible future permitting of a limited number of permits allowing for the collection of 8 kinds of aquarium fish species from nearshore habitats off Kona. These include Yellow tangs, Kole tangs, Orangespine unicornfish, Potter’s angelfish, Brown surgeonfish, Thompson’s surgeonfish, Black surgeonfish, and Bird wrasse
As of October 2022 the court provided the statutory acceptance of a Revised Final EIS for aquarium fishing permits in the West Hawaiʻi Regional Fishery Management Area has been officially posted.
A letter by DLNR chair Suzanne Case to the Office of Planning and Sustainable Development details the events that led to the passage of the EIS. The letter mentions that although the RFEIS “was deemed accepted by operation of law under section 343-5(e), HRS” the process was delayed when a lawsuit was filed on July 13, 2021 in the Circuit Court of the First Circuit (Kaupiko, et al. v. Bd. of Land & Nat. Res.)
After years of lawsuits and legal wrangling, the act prohibiting the issuance or renewal of aquarium fish permits to commercial collectors pursuant to Hawaii Revised Statutes (HRS) § 188-31 in the West Hawai‘i Regional Fishery Management Area (WHRFMA) was lifted. The RFEIS opens the door to the possible future permitting of a limited number of permits allowing for the collection of yellow tangs and 7 other aquarium fish species from nearshore habitats off Kona.
On January 30, 2023 Hawaiʻi Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey P. Crabtree lifted West Hawai‘i aquarium fishing injunction, opening the door for the Aquarium Industry to apply for collecting permits. According to one of the original plaintiffs, Rene Umberger of For the Fishes, a motion will be filed by plaintiffs to the Hawai’i Superior Court to block DLNR from issuing any collecting permits based on the inadequate grounds of the industry EIS.
“After everything we’ve done to try get a handle on this problem, it makes no sense for BLNR to give the industry a pass,” said Miloli‘i fisherman Wilfred “Willie” Kaupiko in an earlier interview during the legal process. Kaupiko, who for over 30 years has fought to protect West Hawai‘i reefs from the aquarium pet trade’s harmful effects continued. “How will we protect these resources for future generations if these agencies aren’t looking out for us here in Hawai‘i?”
Despite being unpermitted, black market exports of live fish continue. Living near Kahalu’u Bay on the kona coast, marine biologist David McGuire has documented and reported poaching at night in the Fisheries Management Area. An anonymous source working at an airlines at Kona Airport reports routinely seeing live fish exported to Oahu in small coolers, likely enroute to the mainland.
In February 2021, a West Hawaii couple agreed to pay a fine of $276,400 for the illegal harvest of aquarium fish off of Kawaihae. The couple were charged with the possession of illegal aquarium collecting gear and aquatic life for aquarium purposes in the West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area without a permit. Inspectors found 550 live tropical fish of 10 different species in the vessel’s hold, along with aquarium fishing gear, including a small-mesh net. Enforcement however, and arrests like these are rare and extremely difficult.
Yellow tangs, along with other algae feeders, are critical components of coral reef ecosystems. They feed on algae and seaweed that grow on the reefs, preventing them from overgrowing, smothering and killing corals. Yellow tangs are also a food source for invertebrates like octopus and larger fish such as reef sharks. The fish are also a wondrous experience to behold in the wild, as they flutter along above the reef and provide joy to tourists and local snorkelers.
During the Hawaii closure, the price for yellow tangs skyrocketed online, reaching as high as $500 a fish. Fortunately, captive breeding has made the fish available at a lower price to aquarium enthusiasts, making fish available to the market that have never been in the wild. With proper incentives, aquarists can raise fish without impacting wild fish, and the habitat they live in, and remove the collector’s incentive.
We are urging the Hawai’i DLNR to permanently discontinue permitting for aquarium reef fish in Hawai’i and keep the Kona gold where it belongs: in the ocean.
Tell DLNR to drop the trade and permanently discontinue permits for commercial aquarium trade collection in Hawaii.
- Hawai‘i’s Aquarium Pet Trade Was a Deadly Business. Earth Justice https://earthjustice.org/feature/hawaii-aquarium-pet-fish
- BLNR fines Hawaii island Couple $272,000 after Aquarium Fish Collecting Incident https://www.staradvertiser.com/2021/02/26/breaking-news/blnr-fines-hawaii-island-couple-272000-after-aquarium-fish-collecting-incident/
- Hawaii DLNR UPDATE ON AQUARIUM COLLECTING https://dlnr.hawaii.gov/dar/announcements/update-on-aquarium-collecting/