Scuba spearfishing ban OK’d


The state Board of Land and Natural Resources Friday evening voted to prohibit spearfishing with the aid of scuba equipment in West Hawaii waters.

The six-member board voted 4-2 in favor of the ban after hearing more than six hours of testimony on fishing in the area, which spans from Upolu Point in North Kohala to South Point in Ka‘u.

The board also approved a new rule limiting aquarium fish collection in West Hawaii waters to 40 species. Both the spearfishing ban and 40 species “white list” are part of a new West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area rules package that addresses various issues. Ten years of discussions and hearings lead to the rules developed by the West Hawaii Fisheries Council community advisory group.

South Kohala resident Mel Malinowski testified on his own behalf as well as for several others unable to travel to the Friday Honolulu meeting. He urged board members to enact the rule banning scuba spearfishing in West Hawaii, as well as boundary adjustments for the Puako Fish Management Area.

“The scuba spearfishermen and others are taking the rootstocks of our fish populations, the big breeding uhu, and omilu, our parrotfish and bluefin trevally, the very fish most-needed for their plentiful eggs and larvae that could be replenishing our fish supplies,” Malinowski testified. “As you know, a 27-inch omilu lays 86 times as many eggs as a 14-inch one. This is why we need a scuba spearfishing ban.”

However, some fishermen opposed the ban.

They testified the science doesn’t call for a ban that could set precedent.

“Approval of such a ban may prove to be precedent setting and fishermen are concerned of the future impact throughout the state of Hawaii,” Kona fisherman and president of the Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition Inc. Phil Fernandez wrote in his testimony. “Spearfishing with scuba may appear to give significant advantages to divers harvesting fish, and the general public has reacted emotionally to similar proposals in other countries, such as Australia, at an emotional level. The reality is that scuba spearfishing does not give the diver any advantage over freedivers who spearfish.”

Outlawing the practice will also just push the issue to another area, he said.

“Banning one method of fishing does not reduce the demand for fish. Fishermen will adapt and continue to fish,” he testified. “This means that a scuba diver who fished in deeper waters would instead freedive in shallower waters which concentrates fishing effort in a smaller area. scuba gear allows fishermen to disperse into a wider area and potentially harvest different species found different areas of the reef.”

He also testified that development has led to more damage to reefs than the use of fertilizer on land and remaining cesspools.

“Focus on specific fishing methods is wrong,” he testified. “Focus should be on finding the causes of habitat degradation.”

The ban on scuba spearfishing was one of the most controversial items in the West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area rules package, and despite passing through several earlier reviews with that prohibition intact, Board of Land and Natural Resources Chairman William Aila struck the rule several weeks ago.

Nearly 90 percent of the 565 residents of West Hawaii who submitted public testimony on the topic last year supported the scuba ban, according to department.

Shortly after the item was dropped from the package, Aila told West Hawaii Today that the removal does not preclude the ban from becoming a rule later.

He said he needs to first know how many people are scuba spearfishing in Hawaii, how many fish they’re catching and what percentage of the overall fishing take that is.

The scuba spearfishing ban makes West Hawaii the lone area in the state to ban the practice. The fishing technique is already banned in areas like Australia and Palau.

“This has been a long process which has involved many community members. We thank everyone who testified today and shared their opinions and positions. I was disappointed with the outcome because I believe we need more scientific data before taking a step that will affect fishers’ lives, increase fishing pressure in nearshore waters, and which may have unintended consequences,” Aila said in a prepared statement released Friday shortly after 7 p.m.

The rules next head to the state Attorney General for final review before being forwarded to the governor for signature, according to DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward.

The rules then go to the lieutenant governor’s office for filing and take effect 10 days thereafter.

The department does not have estimate for how long the entire process will take, she said.

The board’s approval of the West Hawaii rules package also includes, in addition to the scuba spearfishing ban and 40 species “white list,” the creation of a 1,500-foot section of Kaohe Bay in South Kona as a fish replenishment area; the outlawing of the take of nine shark and ray species and two invertebrates and the establishment of a West Hawaii Aquarium permit.

The Kaohe Bay ban on aquarium collection or recreational fish feeding affects a 1,500-foot section commonly known as Pebble Beach.

The addition also increases the management area’s coverage of West Hawaii’s shoreline from 35.2 percent to 35.4 percent.

The West Hawaii Aquarium Permit willbe required for aquarium collectors in addition to the state’s current aquarium collection permit.

The permit will be free and its intent is to provide collectors with information on rules for collecting in West Hawaii waters, DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources Aquatic Biologist William Walsh said last fall. In the long term, it could become a means for allowing only limited entry into the area.