Shark Protection Bill Is A Misdirected Conservation Effort - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Authors

Carl Meyer

Carl Meyer is a marine biologist who studies the ecology and management of sharks and reef fishes. His research addresses a variety of issues of management concern including shark interactions with fisheries, impacts of shark ecotourism, shark predation on critically endangered species, shark space and habitat requirements and effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas. He has studied sharks in Hawaii and across the world for three decades.

Kim Holland

Kim Holland is on the faculty of the University of Hawaii Manoa where he has spent over four decades studying the biology and movement patterns of large fishes such as marlin, tuna and sharks. His emphasis is to use this research to aid in the conservation and sustainable harvesting of marine resources.


House Bill 553 is a well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed and misdirected shark conservation effort.

Hawaii already has an excellent conservation environment for coastal sharks. The two-thirds of the Hawaiian archipelago contained within the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument are already completely protected from commercial and recreational fishing and there are no commercial fisheries for coastal sharks in the remaining third (i.e., the Main Hawaiian Islands).

Our conservation focus should be on maintaining and improving this already favorable environment.

A bill at the Hawaii Legislature calling for greater protection of sharks is flawed, say the authors. Wikimedia Commons

The major problems with HB 553 are as follows.

No Meaningful Protection

The bill will produce no meaningful protection for sharks because targeted fishing for sharks (the focus of the bill) is already a rare activity in Hawaii.

Beyond rare subsistence harvesting, there is no demand for coastal shark meat in Hawaii and shark finning is already banned under existing laws. Coastal sharks are not sold at the fish auction nor at the various fish markets or supermarkets around the state.

The oft-cited decline in global shark populations is primarily due to industrial high seas fishing or intensive targeted fishing for coastal sharks — neither of which applies to Hawaii. Multiple previous attempts (including government-sponsored efforts) to establish commercial fisheries for coastal sharks in Hawaii have all failed.

Fishers in Hawaii try to avoid sharks and release those captured inadvertently. There is no evidence of any decline in Hawaii coastal shark populations. In fact, key biological indicators suggest local shark populations are healthy.

It’s Unenforceable

All fishing methods used to target sharks can be legitimately used to catch other species of fish so it would be impossible to prove that sharks were being specifically targeted. Fishers who inadvertently capture sharks could not be distinguished from those targeting sharks.

Fisheries cases are difficult to prosecute and require clear legal definitions not provided by this bill (i.e., under HB 553, if a shark is captured, the prosecutor would need to prove the specific intent to capture the shark which is effectively impossible because sharks are routinely caught when targeting other species).

Legislation is not always the most effective conservation tool.

Even if the bill provided clearly enforceable language (which it does not), by its own testimony, DLNR lacks the resources to enforce this kind of legislation. DLNR recently opposed a bill to regulate shark ecotourism (Senate Bill 578) based on limited resources: “A dedicated marine patrol, which was discontinued due to staff shortages, would be required to effectively enforce ocean regulations, including those contained in this measure. Reactivating the DOCARE marine patrol would require at least five positions that would be solely dedicated to patrolling and enforcing Department regulations by boat.”

If DLNR lacks sufficient resources to patrol and enforce Department regulations by boat and where the locations of the activities are known, then they are clearly unable to enforce a shark protection bill because fishing occurs throughout state waters.

The Bycatch Issue

The bill does not address the locally more significant issue of shark bycatch where sharks are inadvertently captured by fishers targeting other species (e.g., gill net mortalities of hammerhead pups). Bycatch is the only area where real conservation gains are to be made with coastal sharks in Hawaii because the state lacks the significant targeted fishing responsible for shark declines in other regions. HB 553 threatens ongoing community outreach and citizen science programs that engage stakeholders in shark bycatch mitigation efforts.

For example, local citizen scientists have been tagging and releasing by-caught sharks to help us understand post-release survival rates. There is no provision for them to continue doing this under HB 553.

Poorly grounded, misdirected conservation legislation wastes time and effort and creates an illusion of efficacy without delivering meaningful protection. Instead of simply recycling the same fatally flawed bill year after year, we should adopt a more inclusive and carefully targeted approach. We need to methodically identify specific threats to sharks and focus on targeted solutions to those threats.

To develop effective local shark conservation policies we need to:

  1. engage all stakeholders in the process;
  2. quantify the type, volume and impact of human interactions with sharks;
  3. focus conservation measures on activities that have the largest impact on sharks; and
  4. identify and implement practical solutions where these activities threaten the health of local shark populations or are unnecessarily wasteful or destructive.

Legislation is not always the most effective conservation tool, so practical solutions should include stakeholder engagement via community outreach to encourage behavioral changes to reduce negative impacts on sharks, in addition to carefully crafted legislation that addresses specific threats with clearly enforceable regulations (e.g., no gill nets in hammerhead shark nurseries).

This pathway toward effective shark conservation in Hawaii could be facilitated by a legislative resolution for a task force to characterize and quantify human impacts on sharks so that we can develop trenchant conservation policies based on a clear, fact-based understanding of actual threats to local shark populations.

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About the Authors

Carl Meyer

Carl Meyer is a marine biologist who studies the ecology and management of sharks and reef fishes. His research addresses a variety of issues of management concern including shark interactions with fisheries, impacts of shark ecotourism, shark predation on critically endangered species, shark space and habitat requirements and effectiveness of Marine Protected Areas. He has studied sharks in Hawaii and across the world for three decades.

Kim Holland

Kim Holland is on the faculty of the University of Hawaii Manoa where he has spent over four decades studying the biology and movement patterns of large fishes such as marlin, tuna and sharks. His emphasis is to use this research to aid in the conservation and sustainable harvesting of marine resources.


Latest Comments (0)

Keep in mind Holland has opposed both the ban on the shark fin trade and the law that protects manta rays from being purposefully caught/killed. These two have repeatedly demonstrated that they care more about their research grants than what ultimately happens to sharks and rays. They've been repeatedly told that the bill would not impact research. They can still continue their invasive surgical tagging and accidental killing of sharks in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.

EnvyAdams · 1 month ago

This is a very thoughtful analysis of the utility of Bill HB 553 and I agree with most of what is stated here. However, I have to push back against the statement that "there is no evidence of any decline in Hawaii coastal shark populations." Recent studies comparing the main Hawaiian Islands to the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have shown reef shark abundance depletion values in the main islands of about 90% (shallow-water towed-diver surveys) and 84% to 94% (shallow- and deep-water baited/unbaited camera surveys). The cause of this apparent depletion is unclear but could be related to the by-catch of reef sharks and/or the depletion of reef fish populations, their main diet. Sources:Asher et al. (2019) - Marine Ecology Progress Series. Vol. 630: 115–136Nadon et al. (2012) - Conservation Biology. Vol. 26(3): 493-503

CivilBeat79 · 1 month ago

For shame. These same scientists also opposed our landmark 2010 shark fin legislation claiming the exact same empty arguments. The real issue is that these two do not want to have to hold a permit to conduct research. They do not want the public or the native Hawaiian community to have a say in their activities. Their hidden self serving agenda is clear as they supported the bill as soon as they were given an exemption from any oversight, however, they changed their position to oppose, as soon as the requirement for a permit was reinstated. Further, these two study ethology/behavior, not population biology, and science shows our reef shark populations are in serious decline and worldwide, 75 percent of shark species are faced with potential extinction. As a UH alum its truly disheartening to see the lengths that these two have, and will go to, to mislead the public to serve their own interests-- NOT the interests of sharks or marine conservation. 

HumaneHawaii · 1 month ago

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