LIHUE — The owners of Niihau are asking the state to close fishing around their island.
Owners Bruce and Leiana Robinson, accompanied by eight Niihau residents as well as the Hawaiian Caucus of the Senate, made the request Wednesday during a press conference in Honolulu.
The Robinsons and Sen. Clayton Hee, a Democrat from Oahu, are urging the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to establish a “no-fishing zone” around the entire island for all people other than the small resident population of Niihau Island.
“Unlike every other populated Hawaiian Island, Niihau is the only island that does not have any commercial stores where food can be purchased,” a press release said. “As such, the near shore reef fishery serves as their predominant source of food as it has been since time immemorial.”
The Senate, in consultation with the Hawaiian Affairs Committee of the House, also intends to introduce legislation to establish a no-fishing zone law for Niihau, according to the release.
The idea of closing off fishing around the island has been a concern for fishermen even before Wednesday’s request.
Fishermen said restricting fishing would hamper commercial businesses, as well as unfairly give a select few access to public resources.
“It’s sad. But it will affect a lot of us on the island,” said Frank Medeiros, of Kapahi, fishing commercially since 1970.
He said the waters aren’t over-fished but inexperienced fishing is more of a problem.
He said it was a “done deal” that fishing around the island would be restricted, which will set a precedent for other islands to do the same, cutting off public resources for the general population.
“They shouldn’t have any control over stuff like that,” he said.
It’s a concern shared by commercial fisherman Greg Holtzman and Don Heacock, DLNR district fishery biologist for Kauai.
Heacock said there’s a process to closing off public land and quantitative evidence must be submitted to support any such request.
“All beaches in Hawaii are public beaches. All the resources are public trust resources,” Heacock said. “I will be the first to say they have not been managed the best they could of … (But) what’s going to keep the new owner of Lanai (Island) from doing exactly the same thing?”
The coastal and nearshore areas surrounding Niihau, known as the “Forbidden Island,” may be considered for inclusion in the Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary as well.
The state Board of Land and Natural Resources was scheduled to consider a request in October to delegate authority to DLNR for a Memorandum of Agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Niihau Ranch, LLC.
The MOA would continue the discussion between the parties about establishing a sanctuary around the land, which would focus on conservation and protection around the island’s waters.
But the request, which raised concerns with anglers at the time, was yanked in favor of doing more community outreach on the matter.
On Wednesday, Sens. Michelle Kidani, Brickwood Galuteria, Kalani English, Gilbert Kahele and Leomalama Solomon joined Hee during the press conference.
The fisheries of Kauai are becoming more depleted as the population on the island grows, the release states. That, accompanied by a disregard for taking care of the areas to fish, has led to more people fishing at Niihau.
“Niihau is a constant and living reminder of the interdependence of man and nature,” Hee said. “There is no question that unless the government takes dramatic proactive steps to reserve the near shore fisheries for the island population, their survival going forward is in jeopardy.”
A message left at Niihau Ranch was not returned Wednesday.
The size of the no-fishing zone has not been zone has not been determined.
According to the MOA, the Robinson family has a record dating back to 1864 of preserving the 50 miles of coastline and nearshore marine environment of Niihau.