STAR-BULLETIN / DECEMBER 2003
A batch of onaga is put on ice at Kakaako's United Fishing Agency auction. It is one of seven bottomfish species managed by the state.
Debate rages on how to aid overfished zones
The state hopes new no-fishing zones for bottomfish such as ehu and onaga will allow the prized fish to live longer, reproduce and become more plentiful.
Some detractors of the plan, which revises "bottomfish restricted fishing areas" from where they've been since 1998, say the old zones didn't work to replenish stocks so the new ones won't, either.
The new zones have used deep-sea-floor mapping to better identify the type of habitat these fish prefer, said Dan Polhemus, administrator of the Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Aquatic Resources.
Generally, that's depths of 200 to 1,000 feet, said Tim Timoney, who, with his wife, Timm, fishes for bottomfish in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
At current fishing levels, "the main Hawaiian Islands are not sustainable," Polhemus said. "The resource has been severely impacted, and it will take fairly stringent management measures to bring it back to some level of sustainability. We've got a problem and we've gotta fix it."
It's not just the state that says so. The federal Commerce Department has ordered Hawaii to reduce catch of bottomfish by 15 percent to protect it from being overfished. Federal regulators may soon ask for an even greater reduction, because of falling catch rates, Polhemus said.
The seven bottomfish species managed by the state are ehu ('ula'ula), onaga ('ula'ula koa'e), 'opakapaka, hapu'upu'u, kalekale, gindai ('ukikiki) and lehi (or lehe).
Fisherman Gary Dill has been a vocal opponent of the new closed areas.
While he doesn't doubt that the undersea mapping of habitat is improved, Dill said he's not convinced that bottomfish stay in one area their whole lives.
On the contrary, Dill believes planned tagging studies of bottomfish will reveal the same thing scientists learned about sharks and ulua from tagging studies -- that they move around a lot.
Until the habits of bottomfish are understood, Dill said, area closures may prove futile.
The concept of protected areas would work if the bottomfish are "homebodies," Dill said. "Nobody really knows whether they are homebodies."
"I know the fishery is getting hammered," Dill said. "It's going downhill so fast it's scary." But he thinks reducing fishing effort via seasonal closures, quotas, limiting fishers and requiring permits should be explored instead.
As many as 3,000 recreational and commercial fishers may be taking some bottomfish in the main Hawaiians Islands, said Reginald Kokubun, a statistician for the DLNR. Just eight boats are permitted to fish in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, but they'll lose that privilege in 2011.
The state's proposal would have one or more closed areas near each of the main islands, for a total of 12 closed areas. A number of areas closed to bottomfishing for eight years would be reopened under the plan.
The plan can be viewed online at www.hawaii.gov/dlnr/dar/bottomfish.htm.
Whether the reopened grounds would provide good catches depends on one thing, Timm Timoney said: whether there are any fish there.
"If they open a place and there's no fish," it won't make any difference, she said.