Building on the governor’s promise to “effectively manage” 30 percent of nearshore waters by 2030, the Department of Land and Natural Resources gave legislators a preview Thursday of the priorities it’s hoping the Legislature will tackle next year.

At an informational briefing before a few lawmakers, DLNR officials said increasing enforcement of marine laws is the top priority, but they also asked for regulation of aquarium fishing, a network of Fisheries Replenishment Areas and the authority to create a licensing program for non-commercial fishing.

State Rep. Chris Lee, chair of the Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection, said it “blows his mind” that a major tourist destination like Hawaii doesn’t already have a permitting system for non-commercial fishing.

Coral bleaching, as seen on a patch of reef in Kaneohe Bay, occurs when warmer, more acidic waters lead coral to eject micro-algae they rely on to live. Courtesy of Raphael Ritson-Williams

Every other coastal state has a regulatory system for non-commercial fishers, said Alan Friedlander, a scientist with the University of Hawaii Manoa National Geographic Society. He added that a lot of existing fishing regulations are not enforced.

Catch rates have dramatically declined, he said, but the vast majority of fish are caught by non-commercial fishers — those who fish for cultural, subsistence and recreational reasons.

While the state has experimented with partial, seasonal protection of certain waters, that hasn’t worked, Friedlander said. Instead, fishers wait until the waters are open and overfish the waters in a shorter period of time.

It’s hard to enforce fishing bag limits, but restricting access to waters and fishing equipment may be more effective, he said.

About 40 percent of local species are overfished, he said, and Hawaii receives less funding than most states when it comes to natural resources.

Officials also recommended the state restore nearshore ecosystems, improve marine monitoring and identify its high-priority waters. Some places are more susceptible to coral bleaching than others, said Ku’ulei Rogers of UH Manoa’s biology department.

It’s not just the state’s natural resources that will be impacted by coral bleaching, she said. Hawaii’s economy and social and cultural values may be at stake.

In 2014, 2015 and 2016, the ocean reached record-high temperatures and the state’s coral population was decimated.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands endured its most widespread bleaching event in 2015.

Rogers said there has been little coral bleaching this year, but incidents of mass coral bleaching are expected to increase in the years to come.

From 2014 to 2016, nearly half of all coral in the state was bleached, said Tom Oliver of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“I think for too long we’ve obviously dissected data and continued to study the problem,” Lee said. “Clearly we’re on a clock and time is swiftly running out.”

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