KAILUA-KONA — Save the sharks?
Most people are familiar with the slogan “save the whales” as well as the efforts behind curbing the whaling industry and limiting plastic pollution in oceans to help protect some of the world’s largest mammals. But a couple of state legislators in Hawaii believe sharks and rays are in equal need of protection.
Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-North Kona and chairwoman of the House Environmental Protection and Energy Committee, introduced a bill that would make it illegal to knowingly kill, capture or abuse any variety of shark or ray in state waters.
Sen. Mike Gabbard, D-Maui and chairman of the Senate Agriculture and Environment Committee, introduced a companion bill in the Senate that would accomplish the same goals.
Both bills classify the crimes as misdemeanor offenses and include exemptions for research, cultural practices and public safety, according to a release sent out by the state Senate on Friday. If the legislation becomes law, penalties for a first offense would start at $500 and could stretch all the way to $10,000 for a third offense.
“As apex predators, sharks and rays help to keep the ocean ecosystem in balance, and protecting them from unnecessary harm is essential to the health of our coral reefs,” Lowen said in the release. “I’m hopeful that this year will be the year that we are able to take this important step.”
The Senate announced the legislation only days after photos of divers swimming in Oahu waters with a great white shark, thought perhaps to be Deep Blue, the largest known great white in existence, made national news. But shark and ray protection has been an issue for environmentally minded Hawaii legislators for several years.
Lowen said she first introduced a measure to extend protections to the animals in 2014 after multiple incidents in Kailua-Kona around that time, which included the spearing of tiger shark at the harbor and a separate spearing of a ray. Neither killing served practical or cultural purposes, with Lowen describing them as “senseless.”
Gabbard and Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, along with four co-sponsors, put a shark and ray protection bill before legislators last year, though it died after crossing chambers, going unheard by the House Judiciary Committee.
“Sharks (mano) and rays (hihimano) are key marine species, important to the resiliency of our oceans,” Gabbard said in the press release. “They deserve full protection under law from unnecessary killing or exploitation.”
Hawaii passed an anti-finning law, banning the sale and possession of shark fins, in 2010. As to why it’s taken several years to secure further protections that include rays, Lowen said sometimes it’s simply easier to kill bills than pass them at the capitol.
“It depends on who is in certain key positions on committees who hear these bills, as well,” said Lowen, adding she believes there is solid support for the legislation this session and sound reasoning behind it.
Ocean Ramsey, a diver and researcher on Oahu who was photographed swimming with Deep Blue earlier this week, told the Associated Press in an interview why she believes sharks don’t garner the same sort of protections as the generally more endeared species of whale.
“There’s not a lot of sympathy for sharks because of the way they’re portrayed in media and they don’t have the cute cuddly appearance,” Ramsey told the AP. “You can’t hate them for being predators.”