Scuba spearfishing ban, aquarium fish collecting limits considered


By TOM CALLIS

Tribune-Herald staff writer

West Hawaii’s shores could soon be the first in the state to become off limits to scuba spearfishing.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is proposing banning the practice as well as placing additional regulations on aquarium collectors to help sustain the area’s reef fish populations.

The rules would only apply to the West Hawaii Fishery Management Area, which covers 147 miles of shoreline from South Point to ‘Upolu Point in North Kohala.

A public hearing on the proposals will be held in West Hawaii sometime this summer, said Bill Walsh, a state aquatic biologist based in Kona.

A decision by the Board of Land and Natural Resources could be made as early as fall, he said.

Walsh said the proposals, recommended by the West Hawaii Fisheries Council, are the next step in efforts to sustain the area’s reef fish populations that started in 1998 with the formation of the management area.

The area was established to manage conflicting interests, particularly between the aquarium fish industry and recreational users.

Thirty-five percent of the area is off limits to aquarium fish collecting, in which the numbers of yellow tang and goldring surgeonfish have rebounded. The two species make up the bulk of the aquarium catch.

But some fish populations, including those of the multiband butterflyfish and achilles tang, continue to suffer.

To add additional protections, the state is proposing to create a “white list” of 40 species that can be collected for aquariums and to make a 1,500-foot section of Kaohe Bay to off limits to aquarium fish collecting.

Walsh said the state is trying to be proactive.

“It gets very difficult to restore them if you until things are totally blasted,” he said. “You are too late.”

The state is seeking to ban scuba spearfishing in the area because it is sees the practice as not giving fish enough of a fighting chance.

Walsh said it allows under water hunters to catch fish at night when they are sleeping and at any depth.

“They have little to no defense,” he said.

Since it’s difficult to catch scuba spearfishing in the act, the rules would make it illegal to be in the possession scuba gear, speared fish and spears at the same time.

The Hawaiian Islands are one of the few places in the Pacific Ocean that still allow the practice, Walsh said.

It’s possible that the ban, if approved, could later be expanded to other areas of the state, he said.

“I like to think of it as a pilot project,” Walsh said.

Spearfishing from the shore or by free diving would not be impacted.

Rob White, owner of Blue Water Hunter, a free-diving store in Kailua-Kona, said he has mixed feelings about the proposed ban.

“Will it help save the fish? Without a doubt,” he said.

But White added he is concerned it could be expanded to include other means of spearfishing.

“I know many of the guys spearfish commercially … they don’t mean any harm,” he said.

“It’s part of how they make their living.”

Walsh said the proposed white list for aquarium fish collectors includes 99 percent of fish species currently being caught.

It’s intended to protect rare species such as dragon moray eel and bandit angel fish that can fetch thousands of dollars.

Tina Owens, a fisheries council member and executive director of the LOST FISH Coalition, said she is “very pleased” with the list.

“Everyone not on the list will never be taken again,” she said. “And to me, the thought of that is just thrilling.”

Jeff Preble, owner of Pisces Pacifica, a Honolulu-based aquarium fish buyer, said he supports the proposals but is concerned about their impact on the industry.

“It’s a luxury item in a tough economy,” he said. “It’s a tough business actually.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.