The number of citations for fishing violations off Hawaii shores are down nearly 75% this year compared to last, but a senior official blamed staffing woes and other challenges that may have allowed violators to avoid getting caught.

Department of Land and Natural Resources Officers have only issued 122 citations for fishing violations through mid-October, compared with 447 for all of last year, according to the department’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement.

DOCARE enforcement chief Jason Redulla said the division has only about 80 officers covering many areas of responsibility ranging from hunting to boating laws.

“We’d like to be everywhere we’re needed, but that’s not possible right now,” he said.

DLNR Docare officers with other watercraft near Hokulea offshore Waikiki.
DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement officers with other watercrafts near Waikiki. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

“We are basically a police officer, a game warden, a park ranger, a forest ranger, a marine patrol officer, all rolled into one,” he said Tuesday in an interview, noting that the Honolulu Police Department has nearly 2,000 officers.

Redulla said the division lost staff over the past year, and the state’s Covid-related hiring freeze halted its ability to fill the vacancies.

While the freeze ended in July, Redulla said the department is still gearing up to fill the positions. However, he said DOCARE is opening a few dozen new officer positions and plans to host an academy to train the new hires “sometime next year.” Until then, he said the department mainly relies on the public to report violations.

In addition to the staffing issue, Redulla said that the pandemic may have caused more people to exploit natural resources out of necessity or desperation.

“With the high rate of unemployment that was going on through the pandemic, what we find is more and more people are harvesting our natural resources, particularly our aquatic resources, either for their own sustenance, or, in some cases, for commercial purposes,” he said.

DOCARE’s enforcement officers are spread across six different islands. Collectively, they are responsible for state laws and administrative rules related to natural and cultural resources conservation for more than 700 miles of shoreline and several million acres of land. DOCARE officers aren’t specifically assigned to monitor state parks but are responsible for law enforcement for all DLNR divisions.

One diver holds multiple regulated and unregulated fish after illegally fishing just off Wailupe Beach Park in east Oahu.
One diver holds multiple regulated and unregulated fish after illegally fishing just off Wailupe Beach Park in east Oahu. Department of Land and Natural Resources/2021

On Oct. 24, two separate groups of six divers each were cited for illegally removing undersized regulated fish and for fishing without the necessary equipment, according to a DLNR news release.

The first citation occurred around 8 p.m. near the west end of Kahana Bay where six of nine divers were in possession of undersized kala and a pound of octopus.

Later around 11 p.m. at Kahala Beach, six men were cited for diving without illuminated dive flags and having multiple regulated and unregulated fish, including more than two dozen undersized kala, the report stated.

In most cases, the illegal catch is returned to the ocean or ground up for fish meal at the Anuenue Fisheries Research Center because the department does not have the storage capacity to hold the evidence, Redulla said.

Depending on the violation, people may face both criminal and civil charges, so Redulla said it’s important to understand the rules, referencing the DLNR website’s guidance on the “taking and selling” of marine life.

Kala, for example, must be at least 14 inches in length before being removed from the ocean.

All 12 divers have court appearances set for the end of December and early January.

“The challenges are immense,” he said. “We know that we can’t be everywhere, every time, but thankfully, with the increase of positions that we’re going to be recruiting for, we are going to be in a better place next year.”

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