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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 14, 2003

More fishing for fewer fish

 •  Plans to revive reef fish follow 10-year project
 •  Graphic (opens in new window): Commercial harvesting of nearshore fishes shows a decline

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The Hawai'i commercial mullet catch dropped 91 percent from 1955 to 2002, from 104,000 pounds to 9,210 pounds.

Walter Wong of Honolulu fishes at Kaka'ako Waterfront Park almost everyday, including Tuesday when he caught five fish. Commercial catch has decreased drastically from 1955 to 2002, stirring debate over fishing regulations.

Rebecca Breyer • The Honolulu Advertiser

Papio and ulua catches dropped by two-thirds during the same period, from 286,488 pounds to 98,734 pounds. 'O'io, prized for fishcakes, dropped from 36,171 to 4,416 pounds, an 88 percent drop.

But you don't need to read statistics to see a problem here.

Anyone who has been in the water in Hawai'i over time knows that the state's nearshore fisheries are in trouble.

And one of the big problems is the harsh disagreements in the fishing and scientific communities about what's causing it and how to respond.

Is it the gillnets, the night divers, the killing of too many sexually mature fish, the lack of adequate no-fishing seasons, the lack of no-fishing sanctuaries, the muddy sediment flowing off the land or the physical damage to reefs from indiscriminate anchoring?

Some folks say it's some of those things. Some say it's all of them.

"When I first dived off the main islands of Hawai'i in 1950, reef fishes were far more common than they are today. I could see large jacks and parrotfishes on every dive, now a rare sight," said Jack Randall, veteran Bishop Museum zoologist and author of several books on Hawaiian fishes.

Although state officials say loss of habitat from sediment-laden runoff and damage to corals are major issues, most folks say it's fishing. Overfishing.

On the north shore of Kaua'i, the causes of the decline are easy to see, said veteran fisherman Jack Gushiken.

"Gillnets are a major one. On 'Anini reef, I've seen nets hundreds of yards long, and they leave them out all night long (in violation of state fishing regulations)," Gushiken said. "Another thing that's killing the reef is night divers. Some nights, that's all you see is lights out on the reef."

Fishing pressure has increased, both because there are more people fishing and through the application of new techniques, like spearing the prized uhu or parrotfish at night while they sleep, and the replacing of small, prized natural-fiber nets with huge, cheap, machine-made nets.

"A century ago, the largest commercial gill net was five feet high and 90 feet long. Now they are 30 feet high and miles long. They are so inexpensive that people aren't afraid to lose them," said Rick Gaffney, co-chair of the West Hawai'i Fisheries Council.

Fish are not only fewer, they are getting smaller. And that's a problem in another way. Randall cites Hawai'i researchers who found that a 28-inch 'omilu (a kind of ulua) will produce more than 80 times the eggs of a 12-incher.

"It's geometric. You need to protect those larger fish," he said.

It all creates plenty of opportunities to address the problem but also a lot of angry debate about which techniques to use.

Chuck Johnston, publisher of the 27-year-old Hawai'i Fishing News, said that reef gillnets must be banned. He distinguishes those from ones he considers acceptable: surround nets for schools of akule and 'opelu, whose numbers have not declined significantly, and throw nets.

"On O'ahu, one gillnet is too many," he said.

Randall says what's needed are marine protected areas — representative parts of the island where fishing is prohibited, so the fish can grow large and reproduce, and so the excess fish can spill over into neighboring areas.

Johnston said there are already plenty of no-fishing zones: "You can't talk to me about marine protected areas."

Kalani Nichols of Kaimuki throws his net but comes up with nothing after more than three hours of fishing near Kahala Beach. Fish are not only fewer, but they are getting smaller and producing less eggs.

Gregory Yamamoto • The Honolulu Advertiser

The state Division of Aquatic Resources — the agency whose job it is to protect the fisheries — is proceeding along a multi-pronged path that is studying limited controls on nets and establishing some protected areas, but is starting with size limits, bag limits and seasons for fish, said Kimberly Lowe, the aquatic biologist in charge of the program.

Randall scoffs at that.

"Bag limits, closed seasons and so forth — none of those work in the long term," he said. "We can't move anywhere until we remove gillnets from the reef. And then, the answer is marine reserves."

Gushiken, who said he saw an increase in his moi (threadfish) catch after closed seasons were enacted, supports size and season regulations, and gill net restrictions, but not marine reserves.

"I think if we do impose any kind of sanctuary, you're going to upset the community. And how are you going to enforce it?" Gushiken said.

If it sounds like everybody believes there's no one solution, that would be wrong. A few folks believe there is, but that the solution isn't in the regulations. It's in the process to be used.

Both Lowe and Gaffney say the key is that the process include the community, and that it be bottom-up, not top-down. Lowe said her office has found that it's important to hold lots of community meetings to review options before developing firm recommendations and going to formal public hearings.

Gaffney said the West Hawai'i Fisheries Council, created by the legislature, includes members from throughout the community, who advise the state on fishery regulations for their region.

"I believe local management makes sense for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that you've got dramatical geological differences between areas of the Islands," Gaffney said. "A regulation that makes sense here may not somewhere else."

Hawaiian fisherman Isaac Harp of Maui said that local involvement is exactly the right idea.

"I think we need to get back to the ahupua'a system where the people in the community are in charge of managing the fisheries in their area and deciding who can fish there. If people with an interest in the fishery are involved in enforcement, almost for sure you'll get better enforcement," Harp said.