By ERIN MILLER
For roughly a decade, West Hawaii fishermen, divers, swimmers and other ocean users have worked to draft the West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area rules.
A ban on scuba spearfishing was one of the most controversial items in the package, and despite passing through several earlier reviews with that prohibition intact, Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman William Aila recently struck the rule. That move, which the rule package writers call undemocratic, has created an uproar in West Hawaii, with emails urging residents to write DLNR, the Board of Land and Natural Resources, Aila and the governor to protest the change.
“The real story here is the loss of the process,” said Tina Owens, of the LOST FISH Coalition. “It means that nobody is going to trust the process again.”
Aila said removing portions of rule packages is the process.
“Rules get pulled all the time when there’s not enough information,” Aila said. “There’s not enough information as to what the real impacts and unintended consequences are.”
Removing the ban from the current rule package doesn’t preclude it from becoming a rule later, the chairman said. Aila said he needs to know how many people are scuba spearfishing in West Hawaii, how many fish they’re catching and what percentage of the overall fishing take that is. He said he’s also worried that removing the option of scuba spearfishing will push those fishermen into nearshore waters to do regular spearfishing.
Glennon Gingo, president of the West Hawaii Fisheries Council, said that’s not going to happen. The kind of people who are scuba spearfishing are less likely to have the lung capacity or fitness level for nearshore fishing without scuba gear. Gingo is a spearfisherman, one who has even organized competitive fishing events. He said he would usually be the last person to advocate eliminating an activity, but scuba spearfishing offers more opportunities for bigger, negative reef impacts.
“You can work deeper on the reef,” Gingo said. “You can work longer on the reef.”
He said he sees an undercurrent to the opposition of the ban, adding that many of the people who are against the ban are likely packing coolers with their catch and selling the fish on Oahu. Those fishermen likely don’t have commercial fishing licences or registered businesses, nor are they paying the state’s general excise tax, Gingo speculated.
“They know it’s not necessarily the right thing to do,” he said, adding those fishermen want to continue anyway.
The scientific evidence — touted by dozens of countries banning scuba spearfishing — backs the West Hawaii proposal, Gingo said.
One of Aila’s own employees, Division of Aquatic Resources biologist William Walsh, compiled a 43-page report supporting the scuba ban. The report cited dozens of studies and scientific reports about the impact of heavy fishing on the fish populations in Pacific Island nations.
“Most Pacific Island countries ban the use of scuba in spearfishing,” the report said. “Where scuba is not banned, it appears to be because: (a) there is no issue as scuba use is minor or nonexistent; (b) there is lack of knowledge of its harmful effects; or (c) the scuba divers form an interest group with some degree of political influence.”
A 2010 study in Chile linked unregulated spearfishing with depleted reef fish along the country’s coastline. Dozens of countries around the Pacific, including Australia, home of the Great Barrier Reef, have banned scuba spearfishing, Owens said. She said she wonders what would make Hawaii’s reefs different from those in other countries that such a ban would be harmful, not helpful.
She also pointed to a recent visit by Palau’s president to Hawaii Island, where he pointed out the importance of banning scuba spearfishing for his small country.
Owens said of the roughly 1,200 items of testimony received during the lengthy public review process, about 90 percent was in support of the scuba spearfishing ban. Fifty scientists, most of them with doctoral degrees, wrote to support the ban during the rule-making process, she added.
Opponents “know they’re not going to have the numbers to sway public hearing process, so they go the back door route,” Owens said. “We did the public hearing route every step of the way and a couple of guys get to call him? That is not right.”
Aila will take the proposed rules to the land board next week for an informational briefing. The board will later take action on the plan.
Email Erin Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.