If you’re a fisherman, you follow the fish. 

On Oahu this year, that meant following unusually large schools of halalu and other tiny, sardine-like fish to some of the islands’ most coveted ocean swimming spots, including Ala Moana Beach Park.

But the phenomenon also brought those fishermen, swimmers and other ocean users closer together than ever before. 

The proximity has led to tension, and the tension has led to confrontations, both swimmers and fishermen say, as those in the water tried to avoid getting tangled in lines or even hooked.

“Because we haven’t seen a lot of fishing there, it was so bizarre,” recounted Gail Grabowsky, a longtime swimmer at Ala Moana. “There were days you were trying to come in (to the shore) and it was super dangerous.”

Effects from the COVID-19 pandemic likely helped create the surprising abundance this past summer of so-called “bait fish,” which are often used to catch larger fish, as well as the greater number of local fishermen who followed them, officials say. 

Ala Moana Beach Park Lifeguard station. Story on sand replenishing.
A lifeguard station at Ala Moana Beach Park, where greater numbers of fish led to heightened conflicts between fishermen and other ocean users in 2020. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

One notable confrontation occurred in July, when according to witnesses four police cars responded to defuse a heated verbal exchange between an exerciser who had been walking in shallow water and a fisherman whose line she had pulled out of her path.

“I never said anything before,” said Lei Ho, the exerciser involved. She said she’s been trying to avoid fishing line and hooks in Ala Moana’s shallows for the past 30 years. “This year, I was just fed up.”

Now, state officials with the Division of Aquatic Resources are drafting a first-of-its-kind “fishery management plan” with rules that aim to help the fishers and swimmers at Ala Moana Beach Park co-exist. Currently, the park doesn’t have the same restrictions on fishing found in neighboring Waikiki. (Lay net-fishing is prohibited there, though.)

But fishers and swimmers alike are worried their future access to the 76-acre park’s valuable public resources will be hampered based on the borders and regulations that DAR has proposed so far.

“This is The People’s Park. It is Hawaii’s equivalent of Central Park. It’s an oasis among all of the skyscrapers and commercial districts. People go there to depressurize,” said Bruce Lum, an Oahu native who’s spent his life fishing and, since retiring, has worked to help preserve the existing conditions at Ala Moana.

Lum said he supports the swimmers’ access to Ala Moana’s unique and protected man-made channel but notes that it’s also a public space that’s “meant for everyone.” That includes fishermen who’ve lost access to surrounding areas along Oahu’s south shore in prior decades.

Lum and some swimmers such as North Shore Swim Series director Chris Gardner said they’d like to resolve the conflict in a sensible manner without adding regulations. They point to earlier conflict resolutions at the park, such as when swimmers and standup paddlers several years ago agreed on a proper etiquette to share the channel.

The problem, said state Sen. Sharon Moriwaki, who represents the area, is that officials simply can’t post “live with aloha” signs there. In order to post signs they must first establish rules, she said. 

The fishermen and those in the water need to “find a rule that they can all live with, not necessarily what they want for themselves,” Moriwaki said. “And then we can have a better park for everyone.”

A virtual meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Thursday to collect public input on the proposals. DAR hopes to have the rules implemented by next May.

Both the swimmer and fisherman factions worry that there are numerous park users who aren’t aware of what’s happening and lack access to the Zoom internet software needed to participate in that meeting.

A Critical, Crowded Beach

Much of the Ala Moana problem centers on the sandy beach corner next to Magic Island. Swimmers typically access the channel there because it has a sandy, reef-free bottom.  

It’s also where disabled swimmers and many kupuna (seniors) enjoy bobbing and exercising in the water, Gardner said.

“These folks, they can’t go out that far,” he said. “They like to see the lifeguards, they like to be able to see the sand.”

Fishermen at Ala Moana typically set up on the rocks at Magic Island and their lines avoid the beach’s heavy swim traffic. But this year they flowed onto the beach in large numbers while pursuing the influx of halalu and ‘iao (sardines), swimmers and fishers say.

Lum said that at the height of this summer’s fishing frenzy at Ala Moana he saw fishermen side-by-side, socially distanced some 4 to 6 feet apart, from the lifeguard stations to Magic Island to a flight of steps several hundred feet away.

Ala Moana fishermen
Fishermen cast their lines on a beach near Magic Island where swimmers typically access the Ala Moana channel. Fishing conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic brought fishers and swimmers closer together than ever before during the 2020 fishing season. Courtesy: Gail Grabowsky/2020

Grabowsky said she occasionally saw dozens of fishers this year casting lines from the beach there. 

“It got to the point (where) there was 40 of them one day,” Grabowsky said. 

One morning in July, Grabowsky said, she got hooked in the side, piercing the body suit she was wearing. “It was kind of shocking to me, because I was trying to find a sweet spot” to exit, she said.

She and other swimmers there, such as Sui-Lan Ellsworth, said many fishermen yelled and behaved aggressively toward them. Ellsworth said she saw a fisherman throw a rock at a swimmer at nearby Kaimana Beach, which experienced similar conflicts.

Lum said the “bad apples” among the fishermen were those who yelled only when provoked by swimmers, mainly swimmers who aggressively tugged on their lines.

“Fishermen are usually very quiet. They’re very shy” — it’s why they enjoy fishing, he said. It’s “a very patient sport.”

New Boundaries In The Works

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a combination of fewer swimmers, more people out of work with time on their hands to fish either for sport or to feed their families and good environmental conditions all contributed to the season’s burst of baitfish, said David Sakoda, a program manager at DAR who’s working on the proposed rules.

DAR has issued several draft options for boundaries. One would split the kilometer-long channel in half, giving swimmers the ewa (west) side and fishers the Diamond Head (east) side.

Ala Moana fishermen
An early proposed boundary, where swimming would be limited to the Ewa side. Division of Aquatic Resources

That proposal isn’t in the most recent, Nov. 2 draft, however, so it’s not clear whether it’s still in play.

Another would set the boundaries so that fishermen could use either end of the channel and swimmers would use the middle.

Ala Moana Beach Park
A proposed boundary in which fishing would be limited to the park’s outer edges, and swimming could take place elsewhere. Division of Aquatic Resources

DAR has also proposed making the sandy access beach a fishing-free zone, even though it would “prevent fishers from fishing where seasonal schools of fish are known to aggregate,” a Nov. 2 draft said.

Ala Moana Beach Park
A proposed no-fishing zone at the park’s Diamond Head corner where many swimmers access the Ala Moana channel. Division of Aquatic Resources

DAR has further proposed restricting the hours for fishing at the park to late at night.

Swimmers said the boundaries would hurt what makes the channel special: The ability to do long-distance swims uninterrupted. They’re also concerned that DAR might favor fishermen since the agency doesn’t usually talk with swimmers or oversee swimming activity.

“We’re not in as regular communication with swimming groups,” Sakoda acknowledged. “I see the point that Ala Moana is unique as a swim area. But we get similar requests to make fishing off limits at Kaimana. We’re really hesitant to restrict any type of activity just because it interferes with another activity. Both are important.”

Lum and other fishermen aren’t fans of the proposed limits, either. 

“This conflict is a once in a blue moon,” he said. “Fishermen have lost a lot of ground, and I don’t want to see that happen anymore.” 

Both groups can learn to better co-exist, Lum added. “You have to be able to learn how to live with the ocean.”

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