Cover Story

Image: Laurie V. Carlson

Can we make the old ways new again for Hawaiian fisheries?


Cover image for Feb 11, 2009

Isaac Harp is a fisherman who does not fish, a Native Hawaiian who is hesitant to eat the fish that are a staple in traditional Polynesian diets. That wasn’t always the case. As soon as he could walk, Harp began fishing with his father, and he continued on with his uncles when his father passed away. Eventually, he got a boat and began bottom-fishing and trolling with his family. At first it was solely recreational and subsistence; “I did it for the food and I also enjoyed it,” he says. His catch was modest, and shared freely with others.

In the mid-1980s, Harp became increasingly alarmed about the flood of long-line fishing boats coming to the Islands. “I was concerned about our local community getting pushed out because of these new, more modern boats coming in,” he says.

Harp and his wife Tammy put aside their ceramic tile and marble installation business and devoted themselves to serving on numerous state and federal task forces and panels focusing on fisheries management and conservation issues. They expected to pursue these volunteer efforts for just a few years, he recalls, “but we were sort of sucked into a vortex and we never could get out of it.”

Lacking the money to re-start his tile company, Harp turned instead to a mix of commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing. “I’d go out and catch my 200 pounds of ‘opakapaka and then go after a few other species for kupuna,” says Harp, who also offered charter boat services to tourists in Lahaina, Maui.

Harp continued to participate in various conservation efforts, including drafting a community-based initiative to protect the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), which was later designated a national marine monument. He also served on six panels that advised the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council (Wespac), which is charged with managing fisheries in federal waters around the NWHI, Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands.

But the deeper Harp delved into the politics and policies involved in managing Hawaii’s fisheries— and the practices used to exploit them— the more disenchanted he became. He says his attempts to emphasize conservation over commerce were repeatedly rebuffed by both state and federal agencies. “I don’t know if it’s a lack of sensitivity to the resource or what, but government agencies are very slow to take action when it’s warranted, even [when supported] by their own scientists,” he says.

Eventually, Harp says, he got so fed up that he publicly called upon Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds to resign “for continually providing misinformation and lying.” Harp also asked then-Chairman James Cook to step down for “violating the very regulations he’s trying to fashion” after he and Sean Martin—the current Wespac chair and Cook’s partner in Pacific Ocean Producers, the largest fishing and marine supply company in Hawaii—were repeatedly cited and fined for commercial fishing offenses.

But rather than respond, Cook “sent me a letter thanking me for my resignation from all six panels,” says Harp, who sought, unsuccessfully, to be reinstated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which oversees Wespac. “You have the industry making regulations. It’s such a huge conflict of interest and NOAA refuses to hear any objections to that. There’s a bunch of corruption going on and the fisheries are crashing as a result.”

Upon moving to the Big Island four years ago, Harp sold his boat and hasn’t been fishing since. “I figured I could find something else to do because I learned what bad condition [fisheries] were in. My mother taught me it’s OK to use the resource, but it doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to future generations. We’re just borrowing it. I figured if I’m damaging the resource, I’d better stop, and that’s why I gave up my commercial fishing. I hope everyone can find the heart to do the same thing. We all have to make sacrifices. We have to get fishermen out of the water.”

A “free-for-all”

It’s unclear just how many fishermen are in Hawaii’s waters. Those who sell fish are required to obtain commercial licenses, but not all of them do, and not all those holding licenses actually fish. The number of recreational and subsistence fishers is completely unknown, as is how much they’re catching with nets, poles and spears. But what is known is that both nearshore and deepwater fish stocks are dwindling. And while the decline can be attributed to several factors, including water quality and land use issues, new studies point the finger primarily at over-fishing, or what Harp calls the “free-for-all out there.”

“Hawaii went rather rapidly from an extremely sophisticated approach to fisheries management in pre-contact times to what we have now, which is almost anarchy,” says Alan Friedlander, Ph.D., a research fish biologist and assistant professor with the University of Hawaii’s Cooperative Fishery Research Unit. “We have such a long history of a lack of regulations and we’ve pretty much abandoned what the Hawaiians consider pono practices, things like not taking a fish when it’s too small or in its spawning season. That ‘anything goes’ attitude will take time to change. People have to recognize that resources need to be shared.”

Much of the current conflict over fisheries management and sharing the sea’s bounty got its start in 1986–87, when “an influx of long-liners arrived on our shores,” says William Aila Jr., state harbormaster at Waianae and president of the Oahu Game Fish Club. “That rubbed locals the wrong way.” Many of the newcomers were resettled Vietnamese and Laotians who had been given federal loans to purchase boats, which they initially used for shrimping in the Gulf of Mexico until violent conflicts over what residents there considered unsustainable fishing practices prompted them to seek opportunities elsewhere.

At the time, state officials were looking at Hawaii’s fisheries as a source of economic development, and the displaced fishermen were urged to relocate to the Islands. Wespac, which is under a federal mandate to increase commerce, supported the move, as did Pacific Ocean Producers, which sold the newcomers long-line gear used to catch tuna, swordfish, mahimahi, ono and other pelagic species.

The “old way” of long-lining was to run five to 10 miles of hooked and baited line, Aila says, and since the boats rarely came within 15 miles of shore, they didn’t clash with local sport, subsistence and small-scale commercial fishermen, who stuck closer to the coastline. But some of the big new boats were equipped with two spools of line, each 25 miles long, and they often fished within two miles of shore.

“There was no prohibition against fishing anywhere, and the local guys thought they were taking too much,” Aila says. Small boat fishermen throughout Hawaii organized and began pressing for regulations on the burgeoning big boat commercial industry, but made little headway. “I don’t think the state and federal agencies realized how serious it was until a guy with a rifle shot out the windows of one of the long-liners off Waianae,” Aila recalls. “We called it ‘gear conflict’ at the time. If someone saw a long-liner close in, everyone went out there and took a piece of it home.”

It took five years, but local fishermen successfully lobbied for a limited-entry fishery with a cap of 160 boats, a vessel monitoring system, closed fishing areas and regulations that required boats to maintain log books to report where they were fishing. Aila says Wespac has since “spun all that,” and now takes credit for being the first regional fisheries management council in the nation to adopt such rules. “Yeah, you were the first, but you weren’t progressive,” he says of Wespac policy-makers. “We had to drag you kicking and screaming all the way.”

Wespac officials did not respond to a request for comment.

The collapse of Hawaii’s lobster fisheries was another sore point. Louis “Buzzy” Agard, one of the original Wespac members, says that pressure from commercial fishermen caused council members to ignore advice from federal scientists and allow the harvest of smaller and smaller lobsters.

“They were taking lobsters with tails as small as a man’s thumb that were just used for decorative effect on fancy seafood platters,” Harp says. “Wespac even allowed them to take egg-bearing females, which has never been done in the United States. A few people just wanted to fill up their pockets as quickly as possible.”

Consider the lobster

Commercial lobster fishing was halted twice in the 1990s when it appeared the population was declining. But each time it was reopened, Harp says, “rather than cut back on fishing, [Wespac] jacked up the take.” The fishery was finally closed in 1999, with NOAA Fisheries officials saying that it was difficult to definitively say whether the crash was due to over-fishing or environmental changes.

Harp believes the lobster fishery also contributed to the decline of the Hawaiian monk seal. He says he asked the National Marine Fisheries Services (NMHS) for details on the bycatch associated with the fishery, and had to file a Freedom of Information Act request to get the data. He discovered the lobster traps were bringing up 197 different species of non-targeted marine animals, many of them food sources for the seals. “The monk seals were starving because the fishermen were taking too much,” he says.

Another clash occurred over harvesting shark fins, which are used for soups and traditional cures. Because there is no market for the meat, the animals were typically dumped overboard, often while still alive. Hawaii’s long-line fleet engaged in the lucrative trade and also picked up fins collected by foreign boats, Harp says. Local fishermen, who considered the practice wasteful, had to fight Wespac to secure federal legislation that prohibits shark-finning in U.S. waters, Aila says.

They again locked horns when it was documented that turtles were dying after getting hooked on the long lines. Local fishermen suggested switching from straight hooks to circled Polynesian hooks, which were less likely to get embedded in the turtles’ stomachs. Long-liners resisted, claiming their automatic baiters wouldn’t work with circle hooks, and Aila says Wespac helped defeat federal proposals requiring their use. Ultimately, legal action forced long-liners to use circle hooks and allow federal observers on board their ships.

Harp says his efforts to push strong conservation methods while serving on the state’s gillnet task force met with similar resistance. “Again, it was a very frustrating process because the majority of the task force was made up of commercial gill net users and suppliers. We did get some consolation prizes on net length and the period of time it could be in the water. Some of those recommendations were adopted by DAR [the state Division of Aquatic Resources], so I’m glad we didn’t give up.”

Fishermen have also squared off over bottomfish—seven species of prized eating fish that include hapuupuu, lehi, onaga, gindai, ‘ehu, kalekale and ‘opakapaka. In the mid-1990s, Harp was tapped to serve on the state’s bottomfish task force, which primarily comprised commercial bottomfishermen, like him. “It was difficult to get conservation concessions because no one wanted to give up their livelihood,” he recalls. “So instead they came up with a recommendation for catch limits on the non-commercial guys. I was very disappointed in that. There are some who looked at the long term and want resources available for future generations, but there are a few who want to become millionaires off the public trust, and that was the frustration.

“Most of the recreational/subsistence guys think they’ve been given a raw deal, especially over bottom fish,” Harp says, because they have a bag limit of five per day, regardless of size. But “commercial fishermen can catch as many as they want” until they hit the total allowable catch for the season. In 2007, the bottomfishery was closed for five months, except in the NWHI, after the NMFS determined the stock was at risk for overfishing. But this season’s allowable catch is set at 241,000 pounds for the Main Hawaiian Islands—up from last season’s total of 178,000 pounds.

The higher permitted take is due not to a rebounding fish population around the main Hawaiian Islands, but because allowable catch levels are now determined using an “archipelago model,” which combines the more abundant fish populations around the NWHI with the more depleted ones around the main Islands. Stocks in the two areas previously were calculated separately.

“I’ve been warning the fishermen that’s exactly how they [Wespac] managed the lobster fishery, always coming up with new models, and it crashed,” Aila says. “These guys don’t have a good history of management.”

The old wheel

Friedlander says it appears from recent assessments that Hawaii’s bottom fisheries “are in pretty poor condition. It looks like they’ve declined pretty dramatically since 1980.” Shallow water resources “are in critical shape, but it’s not evenly distributed across all the islands,” he says. “There are still some places that look pretty healthy”—primarily those that humans can’t easily access. The biomass on Oahu reefs is only about 3 percent of that in remote parts of the state.

Harp says the Western Pacific pelagic fisheries are also troubled. “The long-liners are taking the big, mature stock. They’ve got thousands of lines with millions of hooks in the water on any given day. The purse sieners take entire schools of tuna. They target the less mature fish, because the 80-pound size is preferred by the canneries in Samoa. So they’re taking the mature fish and they’re taking the juveniles. We need to stop taking one or the other. The tuna stock is a lot more stressed than marine scientists are admitting.”

Fishermen, as well as state and federal fishery managers, are starting to recognize that fish stocks are being depleted, Friedlander says, “but what to do about it is very much in debate. It’s very much a social issue. We can provide the science to help guide some of these issues, but it comes down to a social decision. You’re really managing people and not the resource itself.”

Friedlander advocates implementing “a mosaic of different management strategies” to help reverse the downward trend of Hawaii’s fisheries, and agrees with Harp and Aila that a “top-down, centralized approach to management is very ineffective.”

“We need to stop figuring out how to be a new wheel and go back to the old wheel that worked,” Harp says. “We need to get back into ahupuaa management. It’s not that complicated. Hawaiians did it for a couple of thousand years and not one of them went to college.

“I think we really shouldn’t have commercial fishing. The resources should be viewed as community resources and managed locally. The ocean resources are extremely resilient. If we give them time, they will recover. There’s been too much free for all. Now’s the time to pay the piper and sacrifice.”