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

Many find fishery stocks take a while to recover

 •  Ban sought on bottom fishing
 •  Currents, fish larvae yet to be explained

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

The concept of collapsing fisheries is a serious concern for people who worry about the marine life of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Edward Timmoney, on his boat Laysan at Kewalo Basin, said he fishes in the Ho'omalu region of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and notices that fish will be missing from an area but eventually come back.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

Eighty years ago, the pearl oysters of Pearl and Hermes Atoll were so overcollected that they're still not back in large numbers.

Three decades ago, Russian and Japanese trawlers erased the armorhead fishery of Hancock Seamount. They fished the populations of this perch-like species so hard that the stocks have not recovered, despite a moratorium recommended by the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council that continues to 2010.

During the 1990s, the lobster fishery take dropped significantly. Some argue that this was because of overfishing, but the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council says a large-scale change in ocean productivity was responsible. The council recommended the fishery be closed "due to concerns regarding uncertainty in the population assessment model in response to litigation."

"When you fish something down in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, in many cases it doesn't rebound. It's very fragile because of the very slow nutrient cycle and the colder waters," said Cha Smith, executive director of KAHEA, the Hawaiian environmental alliance.

Marion Kelly, a retired professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawai'i, lived summers on Pearl and Hermes Atoll as a junior high schooler in the late 1920s when her father, William G. Anderson, ran the ship Lanikai that served the pearl fishery. She recalls living on sandy Southeast Island at one edge of the atoll.

"There was a whole community on the island. There was a home for our family, and there was a big building where the workers lived," she said. The workers would free-dive to collect big pearl shells — sometimes the size of dinner plates.

"When they got small ones, they would replant them," she said. But later surveys, even tens of years later, found very low numbers of pearl oysters at Pearl and Hermes.

Louis "Buzzy" Agard said that when he fished commercially in those lonely islands from 1946 to 1956, he would sometimes fish a location and come back repeatedly to find the fish had not recovered.

"I found out that I couldn't catch the fish repeatedly. It was not sustainable. The standing stock was very large, very tame and easy to catch. They were voracious. But you're catching what has taken years to build up, and when you injure that stock, it takes a long time to reproduce," Agard said.

Edward "Tim" Timmoney, 67, who fishes the Ho'omalu region, said he has noticed that fish move, that they'll be missing from an area where they once were, but also that they come back.

"This is a big area. It's really rather undisturbed. Four boats aren't going to fish it out," Timmoney said.

Fellow angler Gary Dill, 61, who fishes the Mau zone around Nihoa and Mokumanamana Islands, concurred: "As the saying goes, fish got tails. They do move. I think there are several schools dotted around a bank, and they move."

Fishery statistics show that the boats using the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands for bottomfish are catching fish as readily as they have in the past, and in about the same sizes.

"A lot of the fishermen are saying that this is the best the fishing has been in a long time. There is no indication that the bottomfish stocks are in jeopardy of being overfished," said Eric Kingma of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council.