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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 27, 2005

Ban sought on bottom fishing

 • Many find fishery stocks take a while to recover
 •  Currents, fish larvae yet to be explained
 • Chart: To fish or not to fish

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The outcome of a towering battle over fishing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands could cost the state more than a third of its prized bottomfish — including the larger deepwater snappers (onaga) for which restaurateurs and their customers pay a premium.

Tropic Fish and Vegetable Center driver and warehouseman Tysen Justo holds an onaga, also called a snapper. Tropic opposes a ban on bottom fishing in Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

"The snappers are the premier entree in restaurants for Hawaiian fish. We lose that, we lose our niche in the market," said Glenn Tanoue, a fish wholesaler with Tropic Fish and Vegetable Center at Ward Farmers Market. "What will it mean to our tourism market if they can't eat Hawaiian fish?"

An array of environmental groups and Hawaiian activists are pushing to end commercial bottom fishing in those islands, arguing in part that it serves as a nursery for the fisheries of the main islands.

But fishery scientists and the anglers say fish stocks there are healthy and well-managed, and there's no scientific basis to shut it down. The federal fishery council for the region has recommended bottom fishing be continued largely as it has been operating.

Consumers — both residents and tourists — are caught in the middle.

The distant end of the Hawaiian archipelago seems an unlikely place for such controversy. Its specks of land are tiny chunks of rock, sand and coral, but they extend as far as from Los Angeles to Vancouver, British Columbia. The ocean around them is vast.

The region is proposed as a national marine sanctuary, and sanctuary rules being considered could ban fishing, limit it or allow it to continue unfettered.

"We're looking at the continuum of a full range of alternatives," said Aulani Wilhelm, acting director of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, which is working with the national marine sanctuary program on establishing the sanctuary.

The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, commonly known as Wespac, has proposed that bottom fishing continue with little change. Its proposed fishing regulations, to be delivered next month, will be included in a draft environmental impact statement to be released late this year for public comment.

More than a third of all Hawaiian bottomfish come from the seamounts and the slopes of these waters, even though only nine boats operate there, making about 10 trips annually. The fishery's average annual value in recent years has been $1.1 million.

While the 'opakapaka, or pink snapper, caught in the main islands average 4 pounds, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands catch averages 10 pounds. For red snapper or onaga, the average is 6 pounds in the main islands and 10 pounds from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

In the past, the federal government has threatened to take over from the state the management of the bottomfish fishery of the main islands because of signs it is being overfished. But in the northwest, Wespac's annual bottomfish reports show that anglers picking up about the same amount of fish per day and that fish weights aren't dropping, "indicating relative health" of the fishery.

But the disagreements over the health and the appropriateness of the fishery are deep and often confusing.

"Now, they are fishing for more days and getting less catch," said Cha Smith, executive director of the Hawaiian environmental alliance KAHEA. Other opponents of the fishery also say this, but anglers and Wespac say they're actually getting their catches with less effort.

One often-cited study reported that all the fishing boats are suffering financial losses in the tens of thousands of dollars a year. "You think we'd still be fishing if that were true?" said Timm Timmoney, who fishes with her husband.

"It's a resource that should not be tampered with," said Marion Kelly, whose family fished the waters in the 1920s.

"It is the primary bottomfish resource that we have," said fish wholesaler Tanoue.

Ultimately, the decision on bottom fishing may end up a philosophical one rather than one based on arguments over money, environment and the health of fishery stocks.

"I really think they should protect that area," said former commercial fisherman Isaac Harp, a Big Island resident.

Environmental Defense senior scientist Stephanie Fried said that commercial extraction of resources from a sanctuary is simply a bad idea.

"Wespac has the right to propose rules and regulations, but they do not meet the goals and objectives of the sanctuary," Fried said.

Recreational fisherman Rick Gaffney, who represents the Hawai'i Fishing and Boating Association, said the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are sufficiently unique that society shouldn't take the chance.

"That is the first ecosystem (in the world) that has been identified as predator-driven. We don't know very much about systems like this," he said.

Predators like sharks, jacks and seals are dominant in these islands, while plant-eating fishes are the biggest part of most ecosystems, including the main Hawaiian islands.

"I think that the bottom fishing has been relatively benign, but I don't agree with the statement that it's all benign. There is anchoring damage (when boaters anchor while they're fishing) and there's no way to mitigate that.

"It really isn't a massive fishery and it's a very difficult fishery. I would prefer it be removed, but I think there is probably value to some commercial fishing if it has as one goal the collecting of information about that ecosystem," Gaffney said. "But it's very important that the fishery be very closely monitored."

Smith said there's not enough oversight of the fishing boats in those remote islands.

"Do we have the ability to effectively enforce and protect it?" she said.

The National Marine Fisheries Service places independent observers on the bottom fishing boats, but has the staffing to cover only about 20 percent of the fishing trips.

Wespac's Eric Kingma said the fishing boat crews actually perform a national service, by keeping a U.S. boating presence in the waters, reporting foreign poachers and other illegal activities.

"These bottomfish vessels are the eyes and ears for the U.S. Coast Guard. It's a good way to monitor the area," Kingma said.

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