Hawaii's DLNR shifts its enforcement focus
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writer
The Department of Land and Natural Resources is undertaking a major restructuring of its law enforcement arm to refocus on protecting the state's natural, cultural and historic resources.
As part of a newly released five-year strategic plan, the department's Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement is seeking national accreditation and looking at ways to shed some tasks that are keeping officers from spending more time on patrol and responding to complaints.
DOCARE officers also are expected to get more time in the field when a new "conservation court" is phased in over the next two years to handle minor civil violations of resource laws.
Constantly evolving responsibilities and organizational upheaval, such as the 1996 transfer of the now-defunct Marine Patrol from the Department of Public Safety to DOCARE, have made it difficult for the agency to distinguish its priorities, according to DLNR Chairwoman Laura H. Thielen, who took over the department in 2007.
"I don't think we even had a strategic plan of what DLNR enforcement should be, given it came from different places," she said. "Consequently, attention to core resource enforcement has suffered at the same time as our population and visitor counts have risen and stresses on the resources are multiplying."
No longer simply fish and game wardens, DOCARE's 120 conservation and resource enforcement officers have the daunting task of enforcing the rules and regulations of DLNR's other divisions and monitoring state and county parks, historic and cultural sites, forests, wildlife and marine life, sanctuaries, public fishing areas, boating, ocean recreation and coastal programs, game management and public hunting areas, and natural area reserves scattered across 3.2 million acres of conservation and state-owned lands, 3 million acres of ocean and 750 miles of coastline.
The Nature Conservancy of Hawai'i is among a long list of groups that have advocated for more DOCARE officers. Others are the Sierra Club, the Conservation Council for Hawai'i, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, the Hawaii Audubon Society, the Pacific Fisheries Coalition and Malama Hawai'i.
"No matter who you talk to who has an interest in the nearshore marine realm, there just isn't enforcement and not sufficient enforcement officers and too much area to cover," said Mark Fox, director of external affairs for The Nature Conservancy. "It doesn't matter if it's from the conservation community, the fishing community or the recreational user community, there are not a lot of things we agree on, but there is one thing we agree on: We'd all like to see more capacity and a greater level of enforcement."
Fox said he's enthusiastic about DOCARE's new strategic plan, but would like to see it implemented "sooner and faster."
"We're excited that they made their primary goal to focus on natural resource and cultural protection. ... We think they need to get out there and start making examples of people," he said. "I think people would respond to that."
'SPREAD TOO THIN'
A 2006 management audit of DOCARE by the state auditor reported the division's officers generally are unable to patrol state land and waterways and also respond to hot line calls. The report said DOCARE rarely used its boats to patrol waterways, "providing virtually no coverage of the coastline out to the three-mile limit."
"Growth of enforcement division's conservation enforcement workload, possibly by as much as 50 percent, along with a mission that has shifted away from protecting natural and cultural resources toward deterring illegal and criminal activity, has caused the enforcement workforce to be spread too thin," the audit said.
"Public perception is that the state is unable to respond effectively to or enforce laws relating to the conservation of natural resources, making the public less likely to comply voluntarily."
The concerns echoed those in a 2005 NOAA study of coral reef ecosystems, which indicated fishers frequently cited inadequate enforcement of fishing and marine resource laws in Hawai'i as one of their main concerns. The study said that although state law mandates that the primary duty of DOCARE officers is to enforce resource laws, the proportion of citations and arrests related to natural resource violations had decreased, comprising only about a third of all citations issued.
Maui fisherman Darrell Tanaka said many people engaged in illegal activities that contribute to overfishing don't worry about getting caught. Tanaka is part of a growing group of fishers who have become advocates for DOCARE and laws promoting sustainable fisheries.
"When you have a bad economy, people turn to their resources, and the ocean is a source of food and recreation ... More strain is being put on the resource but we don't have enforcement officers there to protect it to address the additional impacts," he said. "If more officers were out there, you would have more concern by would-be poachers that they're going to get caught."
Fox believes most fishers would obey regulations if they understood the rules and felt more pressure to comply. "One of the best ways to inform people what the rules are is to have enforcement out there watching and being visible," he said. "We've all been to places like Florida or Alaska or California and seen that when you pull up to the boat dock in a lot of places in this country, there's an enforcement officer or fish and game officer asking what you're doing and what you caught, and that's rare to have happen here."
DLNR leaders admit the enforcement division has been primarily responding in a reactive manner. Although the department has been building stewardship, research and public awareness partnerships with community, scientific and nonprofit groups, Thielen said that's not enough.
"Enforcement is a component of keeping healthy reefs and healthy ecosystems in our oceans. It's a very important component and one of the few components that can really only be done by a government agency or regulatory agency," she said. "Outside help with education, data gathering and research and partnerships can stretch DLNR resources, but at the end of the day, when education doesn't work, when prevention doesn't work, when you have to have someone step in and say, 'You need to stop that and here is a citation and here are the consequences,' that is DLNR enforcement."
The department was finally getting public and legislative support for additional enforcement resources when the recession hit. Even before Gov. Linda Lingle announced across-the-board spending cuts, DOCARE's current $9.9 million budget was slashed 18 percent by the Legislature for the coming fiscal year and 21 positions were lost, including 13 conservation and enforcement officers.
DLNR officials said even greater cuts are coming, and Lingle's plan to furlough state workers effective Wednesday will further reduce enforcement coverage.
"Over the next couple of years, the state is not going to be in a position to add staff no matter how critical the positions are," Thielen said. "That said, it is a very good time for DOCARE to be taking the time to figure out how to restructure itself. It's a very good time for the different divisions in this department to be sitting around a table together to figure out what those core purposes are to keep going during these next years."
One step being taken is seeking accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies. The process involves establishing a body of standards designed to increase agency effectiveness and efficiency. To get the ball rolling, the Harold K.L. Castle Foundation has provided a grant to send nine DOCARE officers to a commission conference next month.
Thielen also said discussions have started between DOCARE and the Aquatic Resources, Historic Preservation, State Parks, Forestry and Wildlife and other DLNR divisions to identify key resource protection areas and how the other divisions can support enforcement efforts. For example, minor fishing violations could be handled by aquatic resources staff through the new Civil Resource Violations System that will allow violators to pay a simple fine instead of going before the Board of Land and Natural Resources or the courts, where DOCARE officers often are called on to testify.
"That is not a good use of enforcement officers' time," Thielen said.
DOCARE also is working with the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation to free up enforcement officers from routine police work at small boat harbors. Forty percent of citations issued in the past fiscal year involved activities at small boat harbors, according to DOCARE records. A new contract for parking services at the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor will require the vendor to provide basic security, and Thielen said similar contracts will be put in place at other sites.
The strategic plan, developed over a series of meetings last fall, also looks at improving DOCARE procedures, training, technology, employee recruitment and retention, and staff utilization.
Chronic staffing shortages and budget woes aren't the only hindrances to better protection of marine resources. DLNR often faces resistance to enforcement-related measures at the Legislature, where fishing interests have a strong lobby.
A law that would have authorized inspection of boats, coolers and other containers belonging to commercial marine licensees didn't even make it out of committee during the last legislative session. As it stands, DOCARE officers can inspect containers only if there's probable cause.
Licensed commercial fishers are required to file a monthly catch report, but at least one-third ignore the rule, Thielen said.
She argues that commercial fishers, who pay a $50 annual license fee, should be subject to the same requirements as hunters, who agree to inspections of their game bags as a condition of obtaining a hunting license.
Makakilo fisherman Thomas Grass, who comes from generations of commercial fishermen in Alaska, said he's astounded at the differences in enforcement rules and capabilities between the two states.
"The DOCARE officers do not have the authority to ask people to inspect their catch if it is not in public view," he said. "Once the fishermen figured this out, they switched from mesh bags to pillowcases. The DOCARE cannot even look inside of someone's pillowcase without permission, and they can't look in coolers or the fish holds on boats. How the heck can they do their job if they can't even breach a pillowcase?"
Hawai'i also is rare among coastal states in not issuing recreational saltwater fishing licenses, despite estimates that recreational fishers are removing more fish from reefs than commercial fishers. The state does have freshwater fishing licenses, issuing 6,857 last year at a cost of $5 each.
According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records, Hawai'i by far issues the fewest number of fishing licenses in the nation.
Recreational fishing licenses could provide a source of revenue and help the state claim more federal money for sportfishing programs that base funding allocations, in part, on the number of fishing licenses issued.
More important, Thielen said, is the information that could be gathered from catch reports.
"The real issue here is, do we have enough data and information on what's being taken out of the ocean to make good management decisions? Clearly, recreational fishers are a big part of the picture. But a lot of people get very tense about licensing," she said.
To ease some of the concerns, Hawai'i could follow the lead of other states that offer exemptions to shore fishers, native populations and other groups.
Grass supports recreational fishing licenses as a funding source for enforcement. Alaska, which charges $24 for an annual license, collected more than $23 million in sportfishing fees in 2007, according to the state's Department of Fish & Game.
"When we go fishing (in Alaska), it is not uncommon for fish and wildlife officers to land in float planes and check out boats. They also cruise around in big, fast boats," he said. "Southeast Alaska has 20,000 miles of undeveloped coastline and our wildlife officers manage to catch tons of people because they have the resources to do it. Hawai'i is the only state I know of where any joker with $50 can harvest a natural resource and sell it."
Thielen said DLNR is considering establishing a recreational fishing license in the wake of a new NOAA Fisheries rule requiring recreational fishers who use federal waters to join a national registry by Jan. 1, 2010, if their state does not have a licensing program. The purpose of the registry is to gather data on the economic value of saltwater fishing and to help manage and rebuild fish stocks, the agency said.