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

Plans to revive reef fish follow 10-year project

 •  More fishing for fewer fish

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The state Division of Aquatic Resources has known for a long time that Hawai'i's reef fisheries were declining and after a decade of study through the Main Hawaiian Islands Marine Resources Investigation, is following a plan to revive them.

"The project was to look at the status of inshore fisheries, to look at management, how to improve abundance. We looked at available data from commercial landings and conducted some of our own surveys, but we also looked at land use issues, like runoff and its impact on fish," said Kimberly Lowe, the Mainland-raised zoologist who was named to head up the investigation. She is now also in charge of putting its findings into effect.

That involves restrictions on how many, how big and when you can catch a fish — including controls on nets — and establishing marine protected areas where no fishing is allowed. The plan also involves reducing the flow of pollutants and other threats onto the reef.

The first phase, she said, is to put size limit, bag limit and no-fishing season for marine species on a biological basis. Old fishery regulations often had no biological basis and allowed people to catch immature fish, to catch fish during breeding seasons and to catch so many that they damaged fish populations' ability to recover.

The first set of new regulations was established in December 2002. It changed the size limits for several popular species, generally increasing the minimum catch sizes, and changed the way of measuring fish — from the nose to the inside of the fork of the tail rather than the point at the end of the tail.

More fisheries regulations, including changes in seasons and establishing regulations for previously unregulated fish species, are under way. One key factor is to try to set the minimum size at a level that ensures that at least half the fish have reached sexual maturity — to be sure some fish can reproduce.

But for some fish, that regulation would be overkill. "The 'oama fishery would be gone if we went strictly by size," Lowe said of the juvenile goatfish, a popular hook-and-line species that is generally pan fried. "We may use bag limits."

"We're trying to develop rules that make sense to people," she said. "Biology is not the only factor. Rule making is politics. You're managing people, not managing fish," she said.

One of the most challenging tasks will be to deal with gill nets used on the reef. One member of a state gill net task force quit after finding that the state had appointed mostly gillnetters and people who sold gillnets. Maui fisherman Isaac Harp said he feels state officials have consistently "compromised in favor of gillnet users."

The latest proposed regulations could reduce the allowable size of gill nets, require that they carry tags identifying the owner and limit the amount of time they can be left in the water unattended. But some fisheries folk insist that one-size-fits-all regulation isn't the answer and that bigger nets may be OK in certain areas, while small nets for subsistence fishing should be mandated in others.

In related efforts, the Division of Aquatic Resources is considering areas for new marine protected areas and is consulting with other agencies within the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to try to reduce sediment-laden and polluted runoff that flows onto reefs, she said.

"We're not just game management anymore. We're trying to respect the ecosystem," she said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.