CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Two national conservation groups recommended yesterday that commercial fishing be halted in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. With portraits of the region's sea life, plants and animals in the background, canoe voyaging pioneer Nainoa Thompson waited for an interview at the Bishop Museum.
Fishing ban in reserve sought
A coalition calls for compensating the loss of fish sales from the Northwestern Islands
Commercial fishing that is responsible for about a third of Hawaii's bottom-fish catch is threatening the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, two national conservation organizations said yesterday.
The Ocean Conservancy and the Marine Conservation Biology Institute recommended that fishermen be paid to stop fishing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Joining the call for an end to bottom fishing in the area were U.S. Rep. Ed Case, Hawaiian canoe voyaging pioneer Nainoa Thompson, fisherman and Hawaiian cultural practitioner William Aila, state Department of Land and Natural Resources Director Peter Young and state Sen. Fred Hemmings.
The group, speaking in front of a Northwestern Islands photo exhibit at the Bishop Museum, expressed support for conclusions reached in a paper released by the two conservation groups, "Bottom Fishing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands -- Is it Ecologically Sustainable?"
According to Dennis Heinemann, a senior scientist for the Ocean Conservancy, the co-authors' answer is "no." Their study of National Marine Fisheries Service and state DLNR data show that if fishing is continued at current levels, bottom-fish stocks will be depleted in five years.
Paul Dalzell, a senior scientist for the Western Pacific Fisheries Management Council -- the federal agency that sets fishing guidelines for the area -- called the study released yesterday "egregious selective use" of fisheries data "to present a negative conclusion."
The divergent points of view are part of the ongoing battle over how much is enough to preserve the unique coral reef ecosystem that stretches northwest of Kauai for 1,200 miles. The area encompasses 70 percent of U.S. coral reefs and is home to 7,000 species, at least a quarter of which are unique to Hawaii.
Protected since 2000 as the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, the region is on track to become the country's 14th National Marine Sanctuary in the next year or two.
Case has introduced a bill that would give the area stricter protection as the country's first National Marine Refuge, something he equates to creating an "ocean Yellowstone."
Nine commercial fishing boats are currently licensed to fish in the Northwestern Islands. In 2004 those boats brought in about one-third of the 495,000 pounds of bottom fish harvested in Hawaii. The most popular bottom fish are uku, hapuupuu, ehu, onaga, opakapaka and kahala.
Big Island resident Bill Wakefield has been fishing the Northwestern Islands for 10 years and loves the work but would consider accepting a buyout if the amount were fair, he said.
"They could break me (financially) if they could kick me out," Wakefield said, "but if they could compensate me and the others, I'd be in favor of leaving the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands alone," he said, citing his own concern for the fragile natural balance there.
The cost of buying out the existing fishing boats has not been computed, Young said yesterday, but it would be relatively small compared with the international stature of the resource.
Preserving the Northwestern Islands means making "a healthy ecosystem ... for our children, our grandchildren and all the generations thereafter," he said.
Public hearings about proposed guidelines for the area will be held early next year as part of the sanctuary designation process, Case said.