Stalled bills to restrict Hawaii shark tours could still resurface
By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Staff Writer
Efforts to limit or halt shark-viewing tours in the Islands through legislation have stalled in the Legislature, but the proposed bills are not dead and may resurface in the weeks to come.
Shark-tour opponents say the practice, including feeding the sharks to attract them, brings sharks closer to shore, endangering people.
Tour operators say studies have concluded the tours do not bring sharks closer to shore. The tour owners say their business educates the public and raises awareness and understanding of the misunderstood creatures.
The bills include prohibiting the use of state harbors for shark tours, prohibiting the use of cages to place humans near sharks and prohibiting shark tours that feed or attract sharks. At least one bill calls for a $140,000 fine and forfeiture of the tour vessel.
Last week was a critical crossover deadline at the Legislature, when bills initiated in the House and the Senate are exchanged, keeping those bills alive. But all seven bills concerning the shark tours failed to make the deadline.
Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd (Kāne'ohe, Kahuku) chairman of the Water, Land, Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said he might be able to attach language to a related bill that would increase the penalties for feeding sharks to include impounding boats.
"We're looking and waiting on a potential House proposal that has a title broad enough that we can use the title and insert penalty provisions so that if in fact the law is being broken, the penalties will be very substantial and will include and may not be limited to forfeiture of the vessel and a criminal felony (class) 'C' provision," Hee said.
NO CITATIONS ISSUED
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which enforces the law in state waters, said it has not issued any citations for this infraction. Anyone found guilty of the offense would now be committing a petty misdemeanor and could be fined up to $500.
A federal law also prohibits feeding sharks for viewing.
Nothing in the ocean seems to raise the level of fear like a shark, and some groups and organizations are targeting shark-viewing operations for questionable practices that they say lead to potential danger. Tour operators will tell you the predator is not interested in eating people.
"Sharks have lived for 50 million years ... and they have not evolved to eat people or to chase after people, because if they did, we would have 15 attacks every day in Waikīkī," said Stefanie Brendl, owner of Hawaii Shark Encounter.
Brendl said the bills are specifically aimed at putting the only two shark-viewing tours out of business. Yet the companies have had no violations, and the stories told about the increase in sharks or shark encounters are all anecdotal, she said.
"No matter how you slice it or dice it, they are going after two existing businesses that have been in business for nine years, have had no incidents and provide jobs," she said. "You can't just shut down businesses for no good reason."
Mahina Chillingworth, with Hui O He'e Nalu, an ocean sports group, said the group does not want to drive the tour companies out of business.
"Mainly we're just saying do your tours," Chillingworth said. "We have a beautiful ocean on the North Shore. Welcome the tourists to go out and view the ocean. Just don't feed the sharks."
Chillingworth says feeding a shark changes its behavior and trains the animal to follow boats.
LITTLE SAFETY RISK
But a 2009 scientific study of shark-cage dive tours in Hawai'i indicated they pose little risk to public safety, largely because they operate at least three miles offshore and are frequented by Galapagos and sandbar sharks, two species rarely involved in attacks on humans.
Mike Lyons, the chairman of the North Shore Neighborhood Board, said people need to investigate the issue, including taking a tour and getting the facts.
One of the bills would allow for the existing businesses to continue operating, he said. "I would be hesitant to approve only two operators in the state," he said.