Bill would protect sharks around Hawaii waters

West Hawaii Today - March 8, 2018
Chelsea Jensen

KAILUA-KONA — A bill that would protect sharks and expand protections to all rays within state waters is cruising through the state Legislature.

Senate Bill 2079, co-introduced by Sens. Mike Gabbard, D-Oahu, and Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, and four co-sponsors, seeks to protect all sharks and rays for ecological purposes and their value to Native Hawaiian cultural practices and the ocean recreation industry.

“I’m all for it,” said Capt. Shawn Rotella of Nightrunner Sportfishing in Kailua-Kona. “You need sharks — they are the white blood cells of the ocean, they clean out all the diseased, sick and wounded (fish). They are one of the most important parts of the ocean ecosystem.”

The measure passed its third reading in the state Senate and was sent to the House for further consideration. The House had yet to hear the bill’s first reading as of Wednesday. If passed after reading, SB 2079 will be referred to committees as it makes its way through legislative process.

The bill says protection is needed for sharks because as ocean predators near the top of the food chain, the cartilaginous fish keep the ecosystem balanced, regulate populations of other marine life, and ensure healthy fish stock and reefs.

“In 2010, the state banned the taking of shark fins. However, we didn’t actually ban the capture or killing of whole sharks. This bill is needed because sharks are the top predator in the ocean food chain and their numbers are declining. We’ve heard about cases of cruelty involving sharks in our islands, which DLNR says have been difficult to prosecute with our existing law,” said Gabbard. “It makes sense for Hawaii to be a leader in marine species protection and this is another way we can do that.”

It notes safeguards are necessary for rays and sharks as they are “more vulnerable than most other fish species” because they are long-living, slow-growing and begin reproducing at an advanced age and produce relatively few offspring annually.

“Sharks and rays on the reefs not only play important ecological roles, but are also valued figures in Hawaiian culture and are important economically to ocean recreation industries and to tourism in Hawaii. The benefits of maintaining a viable population greatly outweigh any value that would be gained by killing these species,” the measure reads.

Rotella and other fisherman contacted Wednesday said they felt positive about the proposed legislation and didn’t expect negative impacts to tourism and the commercial fishing industry from a ban on taking sharks. Rotella pointed to local traditions of respecting the shark, or mano, and there not being much drive in Kona for sport fishing of sharks or a market for the two major edible shark species found in Hawaiian waters, the thresher and mako.

“As far as I know, it’s not something that’s going to affect the tourism and commercial industry,” he said.

In its current form, the bill would establish fines for “knowingly capturing, taking, possessing, abusing, or entangling a shark, whether alive or dead, within state marine waters.” Violating the law would be a misdemeanor offense with fines ranging from $500 to $10,000 and an administrative fine up to $10,000 per shark.

Exceptions are listed for research and educational purposes, as well as rights protected by the Hawaii Constitution.

“This does carefully protect traditional and customary rights and it doesn’t infringe on anyone’s native gathering rights,” said Ruderman.

Hawaii is home to more than 40 species of shark and 10 species of ray, according to the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Sharks received some protection in 2010 when Hawaii became the first state in the nation to prohibit the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.

“To this date, 12 states have adopted similar measures following Hawaii’s lead. SB 2079 SD1 would further complement existing law by again positioning Hawaii to be a leader in shark and marine conservation. While current laws prohibit the possession or sale of shark fins or fin products there is no law preventing the capture or killing of sharks in state waters,” Keith Dane with the Humane Society of the United States said in testimony in support of the current measure.

Manta rays received protection in 2009 when Act 92 was signed into law by then-Gov. Linda Lingle. The bill, introduced by then-Rep. Denny Coffman, D-South Kona, portions of North Kona and Ka’u, established criminal penalties and administrative fines for knowingly killing or capturing manta rays within state waters.

The current measure would expand those protections to cover all types of ray — or hihimanu. It would remain a misdemeanor offense with fines ranging from $500 to $10,000 and an administrative fine up to $10,000 per ray.

“We included rays in the bill, because right now state law only bans the taking of manta rays. We wanted to provide this same protection to the many other ray species. Also, since the shark fin ban went into effect, restaurants are now using the gills from mantas for gill soup. This helps with keeping our ocean ecosystem healthy,” Gabbard said.