Conservationists are hailing a ruling from the Hawaii Supreme Court ordering a halt to the collecting of Hawaii reef fish for aquariums. But it's not clear exactly when or how it will take effect.
The high court issued the unanimous 76-page ruling Wednesday.
"I'm thrilled," said Rene Umberger, executive director of the Maui-based group For the Fishes. "It's a fantastic outcome, and the fact that it was unanimous makes it all the better."
The aquarium fish industry in Hawaii has posted annual gross sales of $3.2 million. But a group sued the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, claiming it did not comply with the Hawaii Environmental Policy Act when it issued the permits allowing the collection of the fish from ocean reefs.
"DLNR has been issuing these permits with no cap on the amount that these aquarium collectors can take," said Earthjustice attorney Summer Kupau-Odo.
The industry contends that it is taking only 20 percent of tropical fish from Hawaii waters, and that the populations are sustainable because the fish are efficient at breeding. Three years ago, there was a population boom in reef fish. But those who filed the lawsuit claim there's still an overall decline in numbers.
"When you witnessed the decline that we've witnessed for the last 30 years here in West Hawaii, the task isn't over," said plaintiff Mike Nakachi of the group Moana Ohana in Kona.
"The law demands and Hawaii's people have every right to expect more from the agency charged with conserving our natural resources," said Kupau-Odo.
State Attorney General Doug Chin said in a statement that "today's ruling from the Hawaii Supreme Court reverses all lower court decisions in 2012 and more than 60 years of previously unchallenged practice by the Department of Land and Natural Resources. We are reviewing the decision to determine what action the state will take in light of the ruling."
All sides are doing the same.
"Does it begin now or does it begin, as each permit expires, it is not renewed and no new permits are issued?" asked Umberger.
Aquarium fish dealers also declined comment until they could take a closer look at the ruling.