Hawaii Fishery Ban: Legislative Overreach Impacts Fish Hobbyists

Glenn Polyn//March 9, 2021//

Yellow tang (Zebrasoma flavescens). Marine fish.

Hawaii Fishery Ban: Legislative Overreach Impacts Fish Hobbyists

Glenn Polyn //March 9, 2021//

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Regulation and oversight can be a double-edged sword in any industry, particularly within the pet trade. While clear standards and guidelines have drastically increased the quality of production, the treatment of staff members and employees, and the health and well-being of animals in our care, legislative overreach creates significant obstacles to open trade and can often threaten potential areas of growth and even whole segments of our industry.

Nowhere have we seen legislative overreach more drastically than what is currently occurring in Hawaii. After a years-long litigious battle, all marine commercial aquarium fishery in Hawaii has been banned, effectively rescinding already-issued commercial marine licenses and outlawing any usage of such a license for commercial aquarium collection. In order to achieve a commercial marine license in Hawaii, a would-be applicant must submit to a rigorous environmental review process, under Chapter 343 of Hawaii’s Revised Statues.

Note, however, that this ban does not adversely affect other usages of a commercial marine license, such as non-aquarium fishing. Under this ruling, it remains perfectly legal for an individual to catch a Hawaiian fish with a spear, a net, or a rod and reel – with the intent to eat – while it now becomes illegal to keep that same fish alive as a pet. Effectively, the pet industry has been singled out as a target, while other industries face no such oversight or restriction. This, despite these fisheries being among the best-run, most environmentally friendly fisheries throughout the world. Even the most stringent of daily catch limits were rejected, in a clear example of legislative overreach.

This ruling, unfortunate as it is, is the terminus of a long-running legal battle with various nonprofit groups, stemming back for decades. In 2017, Hawaii’s highest court ordered that commercial aquarium collections must be subject to review under the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act, adding significant restrictions to the methodology, amount, and regions available for aquarium fishery. In May 2020, a group of Hawaiian fishers – acting as part of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC) – appealed to Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources for a number of new fishery licenses, but were defeated unanimously, 7-0.

Taking this setback in stride, we must simultaneously move ahead with the daily work of our industry, while still working towards finding an appropriate balance between maintaining our environment and providing new animals for a customer base showing increased interest and demand for aquarium fish.

With the loss of these Hawaiian fisheries, demand for Hawaii-native aquarium fish has already seen a significant increase. Fishes like the yellow tang or the Potter’s angelfish have become increasingly scarce, with captive-breeders unable to keep up with demand. Because of this, wholesale prices on these and similar fish have doubled or even tripled, placing increased pressure on retailers who simply cannot keep up with demand in a financially solvent manner. If tropical fish are part of your regular stock, expect both significant delays and higher prices on fish native to Hawaii.

However, you may want to consider other alternatives. Leverage your relationships with captive-breeders or wholesalers who work with captive-breeders, to ensure that your store has the stock it needs. And, of course, be patient. While our industry works on finding suitable alternatives to wild-caught Hawaiian fish, consider promoting other species that might be more available, cheaper for your customers, or for which you might be able to couple supplies as a package deal.

However, as an industry, we must continue to work together against the sort of overreach seen in Hawaii. This begins at the local level, by paying attention to potential ordinances and laws that might restrict sale, transport, or breeding of various animals. While some of these legislations provide common-sense solutions and guidelines for our industry, others severely inhibit our ability to provide pets to would-be customers and must be vigorously opposed. This advice counts doubly at the state and federal levels; be sure to contact your state and federal representatives to ensure that they see the importance of the pet industry to your community and can take a reasonable, measured approach to any potential legislation that might restrict or even eliminate an entire sector of our industry.

As an industry, we must not only keep a vigilant eye on legislation like that in Hawaii, but take up an active role in deterring our lawmaking officials from enacting harmful laws and policies. Your voice, your expertise, and your vote are the most potent tools in this ongoing conflict. Make your voice heard, hold your legislative officials accountable, and bring your subject-matter knowledge to bear, to ensure that the pet industry remains strong for years to come.

For more information on PIJAC’s efforts at the local, state, and federal levels, visit the PIJAC website and click on the Government Affairs tab.