Wednesday, September 29, 1999

making a comeback,
experts say

Greater numbers create a
win-win situation for fish
and fishermen

By Helen Altonn


Fisheries scientists reported encouraging news today about Hawaii's endangered bottomfish after visiting some of their prime habitats via submersible vessel.

"We have to review the tapes and data but there are more very small ehu (red snapper) at all areas," said Bob Moffitt, National Marine Fisheries Service researcher.

He doesn't believe that's due so much to the state's closure of some areas to bottomfish fishermen as to "maybe a good pulse of ehu coming into the area.

"Getting good recruitment in a closed area would be very beneficial," Moffitt said, pointing out the fish "would be able to live out their lives, hopefully, without being caught" and build up the populations.

"They're not at the point of no return yet, which is good news," he added.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources developed a management plan last year to protect the prized snappers. The industry is valued at about $2.5 million wholesale and retail value is estimated to be five to 20 times greater.

But ehu and onaga (long-tailed red snapper) are down to 3 percent to 5 percent of their 1955 spawning populations. Opakapaka also are threatened.

If the populations get too low, they can't recover, Moffitt pointed out. But with the fish protected in 20 percent of their range around the main islands, he said there's a good chance of saving a fair number.

"In the meantime, those that settled out in the open areas are things fishermen can catch," he said. "So it's kind of a win-win situation."

Moffitt was lead scientist for a two-week cruise on the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory's Ka'imikai O Kanaloa, mother ship for the submersible Pisces V.

The ship returned yesterday to the University of Hawaii Marine Center at Sand Island after studying closed, open and adjacent bottomfish areas from depths of 600 to 1,200 feet at Penguin Banks and off Makapuu and Lanikai on Oahu.

Other investigators were Chris Kelley, UH Institute of Marine Biology bottomfish researcher; Jim Parrish, Hawaii Cooperative Research Fishery Unit scientist, and Francis Oishi, DLNR aquatic biologist.

Hopefully, fish in closed areas won't be caught by fishermen, Moffitt said. But with no one fishing, it's difficult to get data (now coming from commercial fish landing reports) to assess numbers, he said.

He said snappers don't mature until three to five years of age, so real changes wouldn't be expected in one year.

But he said this year's survey, coupled with one last year by Pisces V HURL's remotely operated vehicle (ROV), will provide a good baseline for stocks before potential recovery.

The scientists hope to reexamine the bottomfish habitats in three years to determine the effects of the closed fishing areas, Moffitt said, noting a five-year review is required to see if the state regulations are working.

Kelley is also trying to raise ehu, onaga and opakapaka at Coconut Island.

Parrish was looking for taape, a snapper introduced from French Polynesia, to determine its relationship to the native snappers and whether it's having negative effects.

In most places they looked with the sub and ROV, he said they saw just a few taape or none at all. They saw several large taape schools only in one area, with some native snappers, he said.

"Certainly, it says we're not up to our armpits with taape wherever we look. It probably is good news," Parrish said. However, he said, "There are so many possibilities in terms of these interactions, it's hard to deal with all of them at once."

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