Board Talk

DLNR Proposes Strict Size, Bag Limits On Fish Catches Around Maui, Lana`i

On June 12, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources approved a request by the state Division of Aquatic Resources to hold public hearings on some rather restrictive size and bag limits proposed for several fish species around Maui and Lana`i. Although DAR’s Alton Miyasaka told the board he was aware that a number of commercial fishermen opposed the bag limits, the only public testimony that day came from Melva Aila, wife of Land Board chair William Aila.

As a part-time commercial fisher, she said, she felt commercial fishermen will not be able to survive under the proposed rules.

For the highly prized uhu, or parrotfish, only two of the four species of uhu found in those waters could be harvested. And of those, a catch of no more than two a day would be allowed. Currently, there is no uhu bag limit.

DAR proposes to cap catches of another popular species, ulua (a group that includes several jack and trevally species), to five a day, no more than two of which can be greater than two feet in length. The current bag limit for ulua is 20 fish.

The highest proposed caps — 20 a day — are for aholehole, kole, manini, and u`u. `Aweoweo, moi, and paku`iku`i catches would be limited to five a day. The limit for moano kea, munu, and mu would be two a day.

Moi currently has a bag limit of 15 per day; there is no bag limit for most of the rest of the listed species.

Under the proposed rules, no one would be able to possess more than the daily bag limits of any of the fish at any one time.

Why the drastic measures? Simply put, fish stocks in the Main Hawaiian Islands are in trouble.

During a May 23 briefing to the Land Board on the proposed rule changes, Maui DAR biologist Russell Sparks reported that since at least the early 1900s, Hawai`i residents have been complaining that there aren’t as many fish as there used to be and that fishers are using wasteful methods or are simply overfishing. More recently, in 1998, 57 percent of fishers surveyed by the state felt that Hawai`i’s fisheries are in terrible or poor shape, Sparks said, adding that catch data suggest that their feelings are justified.

In the 1900s, coastal commercial catches were as high as four million pounds a year. By the 1950s, they were a third or fourth of that, he said.

The most rapid decline occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s and catch rates have stayed about the same since then, despite technological advances (i.e., scuba, fish finders, global positioning systems) that make it easier to catch fish, he continued.

Still, according to a study comparing reproductive health in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to that in the MHI, it’s unlikely fish stocks in the MHI will improve without aggressive management. Fish larger than 22 inches are the main egg producers, and in the MHI, fish that size account for only 3.4 percent of the biomass, he said.

“The implications [on] reproductive output are huge,” Sparks said. “Basically, it means no projected output.” Most of the proposed size limit changes are to protect sexually mature fish.

The large parrotfish, in particular, need protection.

“Uhus … have an important role in coral reef ecosystems, the way they graze and stimulate coralline algae. We need to have large parrotfish in shallow reef environments,” he said.

The decline in uhu numbers in nearshore waters coincides with changes in fishing methods, he continued.

“Right around the late 1970s and early 1980s, spear fishing came into the mix. Prior to that, it was illegal to sell speared fish. Once that started, the catch went up dramatically,” he said, adding that today, 58 percent of uhu are caught by spear.

Where parrotfish are scarce, as they are in Makena and Kahekili on Maui, invasive algae move in, he said.

Continuing the gloomy picture, Sparks said that modeling by University of Hawai`i marine scientist Alan Friedlander shows that overfishing is occurring in the omilu fishery.

“It’s about as bad as you can get. This is a fish [a kind of ulua] we have a fair amount of data for,” he said.

The proposed caps would affect a relatively small number of commercial fishermen, Sparks contended. Based on commercial marine license (CML) data from the past four years, he found that most holders don’t sell reef fish. Most CMLs are for pelagic or bottomfish.

However, 412 fishermen statewide reported reef fish sales of less than $1,000. Thirteen had sales greater than $20,000. For Maui, nine fishers reported sales in excess of $1,000 and about three fishermen had sales in excess of $10,000, he said.

After Sparks’ presentation, board chair William Aila asked him whether he had thought about how the fishing effort will shift if the Land Board adopts the proposed rules.

“There’s still a lot of fish that could be harvested. Kala, a lot of weke. So I imagine those will continue. The uhu and some of the other fish, like the large goatfish … I don’t know,” Sparks replied. “Fishermen said they can no longer do what they’re doing [under the proposed rules]. They may stop [fishing] or go pelagic. … There might be a little more effort on fish that don’t have bag limits.”

He said that if fisheries improve after the rules are imposed, maybe the rules can be relaxed. Also, if DAR notices big shifts in effort to other species, it might have to come back to the Land Board to adjust the rules again.


Land Board Approves
West Hawai`i Fishing Rules

After hearing hours of testimony lasting into the early evening of June 28, the state Board of Land and Natural Resources narrowly approved a ban on scuba spearfishing in West Hawai`i. Afterward, a small cadre of fishermen, most of them from O`ahu, huddled outside the Kalanimoku building, where the Land Board met, to discuss what had just happened.

Worried that such a ban would spread to other islands, they had presented the board with video showing large schools of a variety of fish in waters off West Hawai`i, suggesting that fish stocks aren’t as bad as state aquatic biologist William Walsh says they are. Maybe researchers had just surveyed a bad patch of reef, they suggested.

Commercial fisherman Carl Jellings of Nanakuli, former Western Pacific Fishery Management Council chair Frank Farm, Aha Moku council head for O`ahu’s Kona district Makani Christensen, and Phil Fernandez of the newly formed Hawai`i Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition, Inc., among others, all testified against the ban.

But the Land Board also received information from Walsh that fish stocks in the area, across the board, have seen dramatic declines over the past few decades — as much as 94 percent for some species. And while no studies have been done linking the decline to scuba spear-fishing, the practice has proved devastating in other parts of the world and is by and large banned throughout the Pacific.

What’s more, Big Island Land Board member Rob Pacheco just couldn’t get past the discrepancy in some of the testimony in opposition to the ban: One fishermen said banning scuba spear-fishing would put him out of business, although he said later that scuba spear-fishing accounted for only five percent of his catch.

After public testimony ended, Pacheco moved to approve a recommendation by the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources that it accept a rule package drafted by the West Hawai`i Fishery Advisory Council, which included the scuba spear-fishing ban, to prevent overfishing.

Outgoing Maui member Jerry Edlao, outgoing O`ahu member John Morgan, and at-large member Sam Gon joined Pacheco in supporting the motion. Land Board chair William Aila and at-large member David Goode did not.

Nearly a month later, the status of those rules — whether they had been sent to the state Department of Attorney General for review before going to the governor’s office for signing — was a mystery to members of the public, as well as DAR staff. DLNR public information officer Deborah Ward did not respond to an inquiry by press time.

A number of people have been asking about the status of the rule package because the most controversial part — the scuba spear-fishing ban — nearly didn’t make it to the Land Board. Aila, who is also DLNR director, had initially pulled it. Although the rules were the product of more than a decade of work by the West Hawai`i Fisheries Council and DAR staff, Aila was not convinced there was enough data to support a scuba spear-fishing ban.

When Walsh briefed the Land Board on the rules package on May 23, Aila announced the ban would not be part of the package that came to the board in June. (He also did not allow the public to testify on the matter that day, in apparent violation of the state Sunshine Law. The state Office of Information Practices is investigating.) However, after a number of Land Board members expressed their discomfort with Aila’s decision, he changed his mind.

When the rules finally did come to the board, commercial fishermen attacked them for not being based on local data. They argued that scuba spear-fishing is one of the most selective methods of fishing and that those who use the gear don’t try to take every fish off the reef. They also said scuba divers need to be able to have spears with them to ward off aggressive eels or sharks.

The Nature Conservancy’s Chad Wiggins said that while there are areas of healthy fish populations in West Hawai`i, overall, they’re declining.

“There was a time when you could fish all day and make a living fishing off Kona. Somebody said nobody is going to take every fish off the reef. We tried, with roi [an introduced species]. … We used scuba spear-fishing. It was very effective. In 11 days, our dive team — who is not half as good as the people in this room — we were able to catch 95 percent of the roi on that reef,” he said. “No one is trying to make the fish go away, but it’s happening.”

He recalled how one scuba spear-fisherman he met at Puako had filled two and a half coolers with fish in just one day.

Wiggins added, “If anyone leaves this meeting thinking a spear is a good way to stop a shark, that would be a dangerous thing. There are documented events of people being [injured] after spearing a shark.”

Concerned about the impact of a complete ban on scuba spear-fishing, board member Morgan asked whether a two-year ban would be long enough to provide data on its effect.

At-large board member David Goode asked Walsh how long he would need to gather enough data to determine the impact of the ban.

Walsh said that some species don’t reach sexual maturity until they are several years old and it may take another several years for populations to build. Based on that, he proposed a 10-year ban, at minimum.

In any case, he added, his division needs to have a better ability to know what’s being caught.

“We can’t inspect coolers. Unless that aspect is addressed, you can see changes, but can you link it to spear-fishing,” he asked.

Aila suggested that instead of imposing a ban, DAR develop a permit for anybody in West Hawai`i who spear-fishes. That way, “we know who they are and what they catch. I’m very concerned about unintended consequences. I would much prefer seeing what is going on,” he said.

Pacheco, however, already seemed convinced that scuba spear-fishing had at least the potential to devastate West Hawai`i’s reefs.

“It struck me as curious … the fishermen, they all seemed to downplay the amount of fish being taken through scuba with spear-fishing. In one area, they’re saying it’s not that big a take, then they say this is going to make it so we can’t fish anymore,” he said. Given that scuba spear-fishing allows divers to go deeper and stay underwater longer, “they can go out and do some serious damage to a reef population,” he added, pointing to Wiggins’ comment about a fisherman taking two and a half coolers worth of fish in one dive, as well as evidence from around the world.

“Something is missing there for me in the testimony. This is a pretty potent way for people to remove fish,” he said.

To Aila’s suggestion of developing a spear-fishing permit, Walsh said that already, many of the people who have permits are not reporting their catches. A recent study comparing coral-reef dealer reports with catch reports from commercial license holders (CML) found that for the year studied, CML holders reported catching 71,000 pounds of uhu, while dealers reported purchasing 191,000 pounds. That’s more than 100,000 pounds of unreported catch, Walsh said. “That’s the kind of issue you’re going to face with a permit … and that’s just uhu.”

“I personally think we need to have some data. Whatever we have in place, you’re not going to [see results for 10 years] we might as well know what they’re catching,” Aila responded.

In any case, because a sunset date on the proposed scuba spear-fishing ban had not been discussed during any public meetings or in public testimony, the Land Board could not add one in without taking the rule back out to public hearings, deputy attorney general Linda Chow said.

When it came time to vote on the ban, it passed, 4-2.


Board Approves Removal
Of Hanapepe Trespassers

Rehabilitating old taro lands is generally a good thing, but the DLNR and the Commission on Water Resource Management would prefer that those undertaking such work abide by state laws. Ku`i Palama hasn’t done that.

A few years ago, Palama restored a number of taro patches on unencumbered state land and on land owned by Alexander & Baldwin in Hanapepe, Kaua`i. He also diverted Hanapepe River without permission from the Water Commission, and graded and grubbed and installed a cesspool in the Conservation District without a Conservation District Use Permit.

An agent with the Land Division on Kaua`i initially offered to work with Palama on getting him a revocable permit for the 23 acres of state land, but Palama claimed he already owned the property.

Last October, the Water Commission ordered Palama to cease his water diversion, but “Palama claims Kanaka Maoli rights and refutes the state’s authority over him in the matter,” a Land Division report states. It adds that the state abstractor found that “at no time in the past did Mr. Ku`i Palama or his family appear to have an ownership interest in the property.”

So on May 24, the Land Board approved a recommendation by the DLNR’s Land Division to fine him $5,000 for unauthorized use and trespassing on public land, temporarily close the land off to public access, and remove all encroachments, nuisances, and trespassers.


Forest Protection Ramps Up
Under Watershed Initiative

Since its launch in 2011, the DLNR’s ‘The Rain Follows the Forest’ watershed protection initiative has vastly increased the amount of land protected from destructive feral ungulates. What’s more, it’s already yielding visible results.

While flying over south Moloka`i recently, “for the very first time, I saw huge amounts of recovery of native grass and flowers,” at-large Land Board member Sam Gon said at the board’s July 12 meeting. “I can’t believe how well the vegetation is recovering in that area.”

That recovery is due, in some part, to aerial shooting by the department, said Natural Area Reserves System (NARS) planner Emma Yuen.

Over the last two years, with several million dollars from the Natural Area Reserves System fund and capital improvement project allocations, some 26,000 acres have been protected, Yuen said. That’s nearly a third of the initiative’s 10-year goal of protecting 90,000 additional acres of forest.

“This is a vast acceleration of what we were previously able to do,” she said, adding that program funding has been used to help manage more than 160,000 acres over the last year.

And the program is continuing to grow. This past session, the Legislature approved $11 million to be spread over the next two fiscal years. Also, the Land Board has recently approved a memorandum of agreement with the Honolulu Board of Water Supply to allow the latter agency to contribute funds so the DLNR can carry out watershed protection activities on county-owned property.

Still, Yuen said the DLNR hopes to secure dedicated funding sources.

Yuen expects that with the Legislature’s most recent appropriations, the DLNR will be able to protect at least another 40,000 acres. The Manuka NAR alone, on the Big Island, will account for 25,000 of that total, she said.

Under the program, an evaluation committee of hydrologists and resource managers choose the best projects submitted by watershed partnerships, invasive species committees, or other entities for funding.

“We know from multiple government sources that based on climatic changes, the next 30 to 50 years are going to become drier. This is trying to be proactive … to produce as much water as we can [and] to protect against the intense storms to come. It’s really a recognition that times are changing,” said Land Board chair and DLNR director William Aila.

According to Yuen, it’s also helped inspire natural resource managers.

“I want to let you know how incredibly meaningful it is for staff to have such an initiative. The staff having the knowledge that this is really engaging the top members of our state is extremely good for morale,” she said. “It’s really a great time for watershed protection.”

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