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For Leina’ala Lightner, it was time to celebrate years of hard work.
Lightner and other Big Island activists traveled to Honolulu last week to be there when the state Board of Land and Natural Resources approved a 10-year fishing moratorium on a section of coastline on the west side of their island.
Afterward, they held hands in a circle, wearing black shirts that read “Try Wait,” a reference to their desire for a “no take zone” to give fish in the area a chance to replenish.
The Kaupulehu resident remembered the moment years ago that triggered her involvement with protecting local fish populations. She was working as cultural director in the Kona Village Resort in Kahuwai Bay when she saw a boat extracting aquarium-bound fish from the reef.
“It was sucking up all the fish,” Lightner said. “They just put a vacuum in and suck the whole thing, out of the ocean. The water would be dredged, the fish would go into a tank. So we are like, ‘My gosh, this is where we snorkel. This is where we fish! They are taking away all these aquarium fish, for what? You know, there was no management on this public domain.”
The Kaupulehu Marine Life Advisory Committee was formed in 1995. Three years later, it successfully petitioned the state to create a fishing replenishment area in Kaupulehu. That restricted aquarium fishermen from harvesting in the area in front of the resort, she said. Through the years, other concerns such as overfishing, redevelopment of hotels and population increases also affected the area.
The group sought the support of other agencies such as The Nature Conservancy, and developed a study survey with the University of Hawaii to monitor fish populations.
According to a joint study, published in 2008, covering near-shore fish species in the main Hawaiian Islands, 75 percent of the species were in critical or depleted condition, and 11 percent were below desired levels.
“Fish that are targeted by fishers have declined 50 percent more than fish that are not targeted, despite swimming on the same reef and same waters,” said Chad Wiggins, The Nature Conservancy’s marine program director for the Big Island.
After many years of working with the community to re-establish fish populations, the Kaupulehu Marine Life Advisory Committee asked the state BLNR to establish a marine reserve.
The measure was approved by the board May 27.
The decision established a “no take zone” for the next 10 years along a 3.6-mile stretch of coastline on the west side of Hawaii Island, from Kalaemano to Kikaua Point, and from shore to 120 feet of depth, or 20 fathoms. Areas deeper than that will continue to be designated as part of the fish replenishment area, where fishing is allowed only for a restricted number of species.
The intent is to continue to monitor fish population levels every couple of years during the moratorium.
The BLNR received more than 1,000 comments in support of the measure and 618 opposing it.
Some of those opponents also made the trip from the Big Island for the hearing.
“To take it beyond the 20-fathom ledge to me is not reasonable,” said fisherman Ronald Tam, who proposed amendments to the measure to add only certain types of fish to the restricted list. He also suggested landing nets be allowed in case fishermen accidentally caught restricted fish.
“A lot of these community-based trends that are happening now are troubling to the fishermen because it equals more closed areas to fishing,” said Tony Costa from Hawaii Nearshore Fishermen. “What it seems to me is, it’s more code for, ‘want to keep this area for me and not for them.’”
Other opponents questioned the motivation of some moratorium supporters, including the Four Seasons Resort Hualalai.
Makani Christensen, executive director of the Hunting, Farming and Fishing Association, said the impact of development and other land activities should have been studied before a moratorium on fishing was implemented.
“Who’s in control of these rules that are coming down?” said Christensen, who gathered a petition with more than 500 signatures against the measure. “The problem is not fishing. I consider myself attuned with the ocean and breeding cycles. There’s nothing wrong with commercial fishing. Most of you eat ahi poke, poke bowls and you go buy fish at the store. If you don’t like commercial fishing, don’t eat.”
The hearing audience was not limited to Big Island residents. People from Maui and Kauai, who are leading community-based efforts in supporting fish replenishment on those islands, also voiced their concerns.
“This is a community-based management plan, designed to help recovery of fishing populations,” said Rafael Bergstrom, a UH graduate in natural resources management. “The idea is that our reefs and our ecosystems are being overfished, polluted, decimated. We are seeing drastic declines of fish populations across the Hawaiian Islands and we have to take responsibility in preserving our resources for the future. And one of the efforts that has been established at a state level is there is a movement towards community-based management, of the marine ecosystem (and) land ecosystems as well.”
Bergstrom added: “The public trust resource of the ocean is not in good shape in Hawaii, no matter what some other people have said here. It’s struggling severely. And it’s from a multitude of causes. To say that overfishing is the only reason for it is not true. But to say that land-based source pollution is the only reason for it is not true either.”
William Walsh, an aquatic biologist for the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources, agreed, saying “We like to think that Hawaii is ahead in terms of protection, when less than 1 percent is now being protected. We are way behind.”
“This is a good move,” Walsh said of the moratorium. “ It shows some of the resistance, that even when you have some good information, good science, very good community support, you still get people to say no. And that’s OK. That’s human nature. But what’s important is for decision-makers to recognize that there’s always going to be someone in my face, no matter what I’m doing, I have to do the best I can with science that’s available, to support and do the right thing.”
Lightner said the moratorium she has pushed for so long for is not directly aimed at the fishermen.
“We are not targeting the fishermen,” she said. “I am a fisherman. My son, my nephew. If we are, we are targeting ourselves. What we are trying to target is, hey, the behavior of today’s community is not the same as the community of the past.”
“’Malama’ means to take care,” Lightner said. “You can catch, take what you need and put back the rest. If you don’t teach that, the next generation will catch and take all. Because they weren’t taught. Oh, because they don’t want to come fishing next week. So they come take all and put them in the freezer.”