Gill nets must be banned forever
As a fisherman from Kailua, I share a deep respect and affinity for the ocean, borne from a lifetime on the water and ancient traditions of conservation.
I feel that we all have a shared cultural and economic interest in the preservation and restoration of our marine environment, so I was dismayed to hear about the recent killing of a native monk seal by drowning in a gill net last Tuesday off Bellows. That was a criminal act, but the real crime is that gill nets are still legal at all and considered by some an acceptable way to fish.
Unlike nutrient-rich waters like those off Alaska, which support fewer species but in greater numbers, Hawai'i's relatively nutrient-poor coastal waters support thousands of species, but in far fewer numbers.
This makes us highly vulnerable to overfishing, and the science is clear that overfishing is the primary factor in the drastic decline of Hawai'i's fish populations and the degradation of our near shore environment. Indeed, the total biomass of reef fishes in the main Hawaiian Islands is less than a quarter of what it used to be.
Given these facts alone, gill nets have no place in Hawai'i's fragile ocean ecosystem. The death of this monk seal is just the tip of the iceberg. No matter how well they are tended, fishing with nets is an inherently unsustainable practice.
The delicate balance of the marine ecosystem is altered by the sheer volume of marine life taken. Nets are indiscriminant and kill nearly everything they come into contact with. Derelict nets continue to fish long after they are abandoned and scour the life off Hawai'i's reefs and beaches.
According to the Hawaii Marine Debris Action Plan, a survey of the main Hawaiian Islands in 2006 discovered that more than 117 tons of nets and marine debris littered our reefs and beaches. More than 52 tons are removed every year from Papahānaumokuākea, and nearly 700 tons have been removed since 1997. Some invoke tradition to justify their continued use, but monofilament gill nets are a modern invention. And the ongoing tragedy of unintentional killing sadly reminds us again that the traditional ethic of ocean conservation embodied in respect, kapu and the ahupua'a is lost.
I have fished all my life. I love fishing. But I don't love all fishing methods. There are plenty of ways to fish sustainably without killing the ocean ecosystem. Lay gill nets are an anachronism, and given the unacceptable danger to Hawai'i's cultural and economic well-being posed by nets, it is inexplicable to condone this practice.
The new konohiki (the state of Hawai'i) has managed our most important natural resource to the brink of extinction. The truth, however, is that it does not have to end this way.
In Fiji, the chief banned gill nets and the fish came back. It started with strong government leadership and enforcement and following their lead, recognition by the people that nets posed an unacceptable danger to their cultural and economic well-being. Indeed, wherever gill nets have been banned throughout the world, the fish came back.
This monk seal did not have to die this way, nor does our own cultural and economic well-being. Enough already.
John McClaran is a Kailua resident and retired Navy pilot. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.