UPDATED: 2/11/2013 5:20 p.m.

Hawaii fishermen say they are being pushed to the limit by a barrage of proposed federal and state laws that threaten their livelihood.

“It stresses me out. It stresses a lot of fishermen out, because how many other people have to fight to maintain their way of life?” said Makani Christensen, a commercial fisherman on Oahu who catches goatfish with nets and fly-fishes.

Christensen was one of a few dozen fishermen who crowded a hearing last Thursday in Honolulu to testify against a proposal by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to list three coral species in Hawaii as threatened.

The listings are just one of several NOAA proposals that have fishermen worried. The federal agency may also expand protections for the endangered monk seal around the main Hawaiian islands and take more aggressive actions to help the species recover. NOAA also released rules earlier this month that will enforce a commercial fishing ban in the Pacific marine national monuments.

“There is a whole lot of stuff coming down that is relevant and important for fishermen to understand and that can be overwhelming,” said Charles Littnan, lead scientist for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.

NOAA officials say that the monk seal and coral proposals will likely have little impact, if any, on fishing. But they can’t guarantee it. And some fishermen, who see monk seals as competitors, don’t want to see the population increasing in areas where they fish.

The federal actions are coupled with a number of bills at the Hawaii Legislature this year targeting a range of fishing activities, including restrictions on the types of nets that fishermen can use, a ban on aquarium fishing and a prohibition against net fishing in Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai.

Fishermen have packed hearings at the state Capitol to show angry opposition to the bills, some of which have already died.

Some say that taken as a whole, the new laws and restrictions could devastate their industry.

Carl Jellings, a fisherman from Nanakuli on Oahu’s leeward side, said that fishing practices were “being eroded on a daily, monthly and yearly basis.”

“This is something my ancestors did 10 generations ago that I’m still doing,” he said. “So you make a law and stop me from practicing that art, then that’s something to get frustrated and upset about.”

UPDATED Hawaii’s commercial fishermen brought in about 31 million pounds of fish in 2010, according to the latest state fishery statistics. The catch includes more than 100 different species valued at $83.5 million, the most abundant being big eye tuna and swordfish. This is in addition to subsistence fishing that is not tracked.1

Fishermen Vs. Monk Seals

Littnan says that a lot of the concerns about NOAA’s proposals are overblown, particularly when it comes to the monk seals.

It would help “if people could leave the rhetoric and paranoia at home, because I think everyone on both sides wants to do the best thing,” he said. “But the conversation is just broken.”

NOAA will make a decision soon on whether to expand the critical habitat designation for monk seals from the remote northwest Hawaiian islands to the main Hawaiian islands. The designation means that any activity that entails federal funding, federal permits or a federal action, must be reviewed by NOAA’s Fisheries Service to make sure that it won’t negatively affect the monk seal population. Fishermen worry that this could mean future restrictions.

The agency is also in the midst of establishing a new recovery plan for the monk seals — the population has dwindled to a little more than 1,000 seals. One proposal, which many fishermen oppose, is to bring monk seal pups from the northwest Hawaiian islands to the main Hawaiian islands to boost survival rates. Monk seal pups have an 80 percent chance of dying in the northwest Hawaiian islands. But if they can make it to adulthood, their chances of staying alive from one year to the next is 90 percent, said Littnan. The seals would be brought back to the northwest Hawaiian islands after two to three years, he said.

Fishermen say they don’t trust NOAA to return the seals, and that increasing their population will lead to more interactions between them and the seals.

“Fishermen are really, really concerned,” said Tony Costa, a spokesperson for Hawaii Near Shore Fishermen. “A monk seal is an endangered species. If you alter their behavior in any way, apparently you are breaking a federal law. Even if you look at one funny and it causes them to swim the other way, that is a violation.”

Penalties for harming or killing threatened or endangered species can be as high as $50,000 and entail jail time. However, Civil Beat found that fines related to the 12 threatened or endangered marine species that inhabit thousands of square miles of ocean are rare. A review of 10 years or records shows that NOAA issued about three fines a year statewide, averaging less than $4,000.

Littnan in part blames the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tuscon, Ariz.-based environmental group, for creating the backlash among fishermen. NOAA is required to come up with a new recovery plan because the agency’s permit is about to expire. But the agency did not propose expanding the critical habitat designation. Rather the Center for Biological Diversity, and two local groups, KAHEA and Ocean Conservancy, petitioned NOAA for the expansion, forcing the agency to act.

Littnan said that it was bad timing and that the Center for Biological Diversity led the charge.

“Our path forward and our way of (working) was hijacked by an outside group that didn’t really understand the sensitivities of everything we had to deal with,” he said. “But NOAA ends up looking like the heavy handed bad guy.”

UPDATED Littnan said a rash of monk seal killings were likely provoked by the critical habitat designation. He said he didn’t know who was behind them, but that it could have been fishermen, delinquent teens or other ocean users.

“I think we have lost a lot of people in local communities that we probably are never going to get to support monk seals now,” he said.

Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, defended the petition, but said that they could have done a better job at preparing the community.

“I think it surprised everyone, both NOAA and our local partners, the backlash and feedback that we did get,” she said. “We could have done better at laying the groundwork to prepare them for the critical habitat hearings.”

Coral Protections Stoke Anger

NOAA’s proposal to list several coral species as threatened was also prompted by a petition from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Scientists say that 30 to 40 percent of the world’s coral has already been significantly harmed, and some worry that the coral reefs are on a trajectory to collapse.

Fishermen say they have a vested stake in maintaining healthy coral reefs, but worry that sustainable fishing practices could end up being curtailed.

Their fears are heightened by a lack of definitive answers from NOAA.

NOAA’s proposal includes three coral species commonly found around the islands.

“There’s basically no place on the islands where you won’t find these corals,” Matthew Ross, an aquarium fisherman, told Civil Beat, as he motioned to maps of the coral provided by NOAA at Thursday’s hearing.

NOAA lists fishing as one of a long list of activities that may be impacted by the coral protections in federal documents. But officials say that there is no way of telling what if any fishing activities in Hawaii will be impacted.

During a question and answer session with NOAA, Ross went down a list of fishing practices, such as spearfishing and bottom fishing, asking officials whether any of them could be restricted.

But neither Ross or the other fishermen in the room, got any answers.

“The answer is going to annoy you, and the answer is ‘maybe,’” said Lance Smith, a biologist at NOAA. “Like all the questions, the answer is going to be ‘maybe.’”

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