(CN) - Hawaii is hurting its colorful fish and coral reefs by allowing commercial operations to take unlimited numbers of aquarium fish without environmental impact surveys, environmentalists claim in Federal Court.
Aquarium collection permits allow collectors to use mesh nets to capture fish and invertebrates anywhere in Hawaii except protected areas.
Permits are good for one year, and the Department of Land and Natural Resources issues them for recreational or commercial collection.
Recreational collectors can harvest only five fish or invertebrate species per person per day, but commercial permits do not limit the number of animals that can be taken.
"(N)or is there a limit on the number of commercial collection permits that DLNR can issue. Currently, DLNR administers approximately 160 commercial aquarium collection permits," the complaint states.
Hawaii requires commercial collectors to submit "monthly catch reports ... detailing the type and quantity of fish collected." But the plaintiffs say the state relies entirely upon self-reporting, and has not submitted a catch report to the Board of Land and Natural Resources since 1999.
Plaintiffs' attorney Caroline Ishida estimated that 712,000 animals were harvested last year, and 700,000 in 2010.
"But the department doesn't verify that people caught the animals they say they caught, which makes it difficult to know how many animals are really taken each year," Ishida told Courthouse News in an interview.
The Conservation Council of Hawaii, The Humane Society of the United States, the Center for Biological Diversity, and four recreational divers sued Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources in Hawaii's First Circuit Court.
They claim the state's lax approach to collecting permits is devastating fish species, which are essential to the health of Earth's disappearing coral reefs.
"The reason we went to court is that we want the department to gather the information necessary to make decisions about permitting based on science," attorney Ishida, with Earth Justice, told Courthouse News in an interview.
"The aquarium trade has been active in the state for over 30 years, but the state has never done any studies examining the impacts," Ishida said. "It's quite possible that there are impacts going on that the agency doesn't even know about."
Alton Miyasaka, with the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said the office had just received the lawsuit and, "We have no statement at this time."
The plaintiffs say the state is violating Hawaii Environmental Policy Act (HEPA) by issuing permits for aquarium collection without analyzing the impact on the animals and coral reef ecosystems.
"The State of Hawaii is the largest exporter in the United States of species intended for the aquarium trade," the complaint states. "The aquarium collection industry primarily targets herbivorous fish and invertebrate species that inhabit coral reefs. According to DLNR data, approximately 75 percent of the state's aquarium fish catch comes from the west coast of the island of Hawaii' ('west Hawaii'), and 99 percent of all invertebrates caught in the state come from Oahu's nearshore waters.