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Biodiversity: More protection sought for Hawaii reefs

Most of Hawaii’s coral reefs are concentrated around the big island, according to this NOAA map.

Overfishing and commercial harvesting pose a threat to biodiversity

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Hawaii’s reefs may have a fighting chance to survive climate change impacts if they’re protected from other impacts like overfishing, but so far, state officials haven’t done enough conservation planning — and haven’t even followed the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act’s requirement to examine aquarium collection’s effects on the environment before issuing collection permits.

Last week, a coalition of community groups and activists took the state to court, asking Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources 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.

Earthjustice filed the complaint under the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act in the 1st Circuit Court on behalf of Rene Umberger, Mike Nakachi, Kaimi Kaupiko, Willie Kaupiko, Conservation Council for Hawaii, The Humane Society of the United States and the Center for Biological Diversity. 

“DLNR owes it to the people of Hawaii to take a hard look at the effects of aquarium collection on our coral reefs before it allows these ecologically valuable animals to be shipped to the mainland for private profit,” said Earthjustice attorney Caroline Ishida.

Aquarium collectors capture hundreds of thousands of fish and invertebrates from Hawaii’s reefs every year. Alarmingly, DLNR has stated that this should be considered a minimum estimate because it does not verify the accuracy of submitted catch reports.

The collected animals are primarily herbivorous reef-dwellers that serve unique functions in the coral reef ecosystem, such as helping to control algae growth. Studies have shown that reducing diversity of reef fish and shellfish affects a reef’s ability to respond to stresses or disturbances.  This is vitally important as reefs come under serious pressure from global threats, including climate change and ocean acidification. DLNR has not conducted any studies showing how its policy of handing out permits for the asking will affect Hawaii’s reefs over time.

The complaint seeks a court order to force the state to comply with the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act’s requirement to examine aquarium collection’s effects on the environment before issuing collection permits. The complaint also asks the court to halt collection under existing commercial aquarium permits and to stop DLNR from issuing new permits until the environmental review is complete.

“Our coral reefs are among Hawaii’s most precious resources, and DLNR should have all of the available information about aquarium collection before deciding whether to issue these permits,” said Marjorie Ziegler, of Conservation Council for Hawaii.

There is currently no limit on the number of aquarium permits that DLNR can issue and no limit on the number of animals a commercial collector can take under a permit. Aquarium collection can occur anywhere in the state, except in designated protected areas, but primarily occurs in waters around Oahu and along the west coast of the island of Hawaii. DLNR has expressed concern in official reports over the increasing number of collectors in the state and the growing number of animals harvested from the reefs by the aquarium trade.

“I have done thousands of scuba dives on reefs around the state over the years, and I have seen a noticeable difference in reef health between areas that are open to collection and those where collection is prohibited,” said Rene Umberger. “DLNR needs to fulfill its basic public duty to examine this practice before issuing permits that allow collectors to remove many thousands of animals from the reefs every year, particularly because of the global stresses reefs are facing.”

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