Shark bill celebrated, but some say it lacks teeth

Bill prohibits capture, killing of sharks; goes into effect Jan. 1

Conservation groups are celebrating a bill that prohibits the capture, killing or entanglement of sharks in Hawaii waters, though some shark researchers say it’s tough to enforce and that targeted fishing of sharks is already rare. KAIKEA NAKACHI photo

A bill to protect sharks from capture or killing is being celebrated by a Kihei-based conservation group but questioned by a top shark researcher who says it lacks more meaningful protections.

House Bill 553, which becomes law on Jan. 1, prohibits the intentional or knowing capture, killing or entanglement of any shark in state waters, bringing an end to shark trophy hunting charters, taking baby sharks for the aquarium pet trade and the intentional killing or mutilation of sharks for their teeth, jaws or other parts.

The bill does not criminalize the accidental capture and release of a shark if incidentally captured while lawfully fishing for other species. It also allows for the state’s continued issuance of research, education and special activity permits.

Gov. David Ige signed the measure on June 8, World Oceans Day, making Hawaii waters a sanctuary for the more than 40 species of sharks that frequent the island chain.

“Sharks are apex predators who keep our oceans healthy and clean by consuming other marine animals that may be suffering from illness,” said Rene Umberger, founder and executive director of the Kihei-based nonprofit For The Fishes. “Healthy sharks mean healthy oceans and keep our ecosystems functioning as they should.”

For the past five years, For The Fishes, which works to restore and protect fish populations and coral reef habitats, has pushed for shark protections along with other organizations that include Hawaii island-based Malama Mano, Pono Advocacy, the Sierra Club Hawaii Chapter, the Hawaii Reef and Ocean Coalition, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Umberger said Thursday that “we were thrilled” that the state Legislature unanimously passed HB 553, because the measure will “finally provide these culturally revered and ecologically critical species the protections they have long deserved.”

Maui is a popular habitat for sharks, which may also explain why it typically has more attacks than other islands. Tiger sharks in particular favor the shallow coastal shelf habitats that surround the four islands of Maui Nui, according to the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. Researchers found that tiger sharks logged more days at Makena Point than any other areas monitored in the state, followed by Kalama, Palauea and Olowalu.

“In other words, there are tiger sharks along that part of the Maui coast every day,” Kim Holland, a research professor at the institute, said in March.

State Rep. Tina Wildberger, whose district includes South Maui, said that she supported the bill because “marine protection has always been a priority for me as our lives and livelihoods are inextricably linked to our reefs and oceans.”

Reef shark populations have declined by upwards of 90 percent around the main Hawaiian Islands, according to a news release from the state Legislature the day the bill was signed. Globally, 71 percent of shark species are facing potential extinction.

The most common threats to sharks and rays worldwide include overfishing and a demand for their fins, habitat and prey loss, and human disturbance.

According to DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources, the scalloped hammerhead is considered endangered and about a dozen species of sharks are classified as “vulnerable.”

“We have received reports statewide, including on Maui, of intentional shark killings and mutilations,” Umberger said. “Further, there are a number of charter operators who have offered shark hunts where visitors pay high-dollar to capture sharks simply for a thrill.”

Wildberger recalled how a few years ago, a reef shark was found tied up on a tree at an Olowalu beach.

“She could not have ended up there on her own,” Wildberger said. “We understand that sharks may accidentally be captured when fishers are targeting other species and the new law does not criminalize that. Ethical fishers release sharks, and that’s what we want to continue.”

In 2010, Hawaii enacted the nation’s first anti-finning and shark fin sales ban, setting off a global initiative with 13 U.S. states and territories following Hawaii’s lead, according to the Legislature.

Since its enactment, data has shown that Hawaii’s shark fin sales ban bill helped to save the lives of thousands of sharks from finning, however, that measure didn’t explicitly apply to the capture or killing of whole sharks as HB 553 does.

State Rep. Nicole Lowen of Hawaii island had introduced the new bill along with several other lawmakers, saying that “sharks are key apex predators who are critical to our ocean’s health and resiliency, especially in light of growing negative impacts from climate change.”

While some environmental groups were happy to see the law move forward, Carl Meyer of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology said that more work needs to be done. Meyer said Wednesday that there are “no meaningful protections” outlined in the bill because fishing for sharks is already rare in Hawaii and that the waters here already provide an adequate conservation environment for reef sharks.

His research focuses on all shark species and reef fish, including their ecology, habitat, behaviors, movement patterns, the effectiveness of marine protected areas and management of threatened shark populations, as well as the impacts of human recreational activities.

Meyer and Holland wrote in a March op-ed in Honolulu Civil Beat that even if the bill provided clear “enforceable language,” the DLNR still lacks the resources to patrol the waters and enforce the law.

When asked how violations will be regulated, Wildberger said that law enforcement by DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement will depend on the community to report any potential offenses.

“It’s my understanding that the state will also be working with key Native Hawaiian and marine protection organizations to educate the community and visitors alike, including installing signage at harbors and fisher outreach,” she said. “Our fisheries are collapsing. We must protect them with all of our capability. This law is a good start.”

However, Meyer told The Maui News that the current bill is “completely lacking” in some details — conservation efforts require measurable progress, data and clear steps outlining how people involved can reach the goal at hand, he said.

“To achieve effective conservation, we need to engage all stakeholders in order to clearly understand their perspectives on, and interactions with, sharks,” he said. “We need to understand and quantify our impacts on sharks in order to identify human activities that negatively impact shark populations and then create conservation measures that effectively mitigate those negative impacts.”

This also requires surveys that identify population changes over a period of time at one particular location so as to determine whether management measures are truly helping, he added.

“We have no before-versus-after abundance survey data for sharks in Hawaii,” he said. “Thus we are not able to detect any declines or increases in shark abundance. We only have surveys comparing shark abundance among locations.”

Among any impacts that may affect the abundance of sharks in the main Hawaiian islands, “we can say with confidence that is not the result of people intentionally targeting coastal sharks,” he said.

“If targeted fishing for sharks is not a significant influence on local shark populations then a bill banning targeted shark fishing will have no measurable effect on Hawaii shark populations,” he added.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.


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