Fisheries at ‘critical juncture’

HAENA — About 50 people gathered Sunday at Camp Naue in Haena to reflect on the status of the historic Community Based Subsistence Fishing Area — a zone that extends a mile out to sea from Wainiha to Napali State Park, where fishing is subject to new rules enacted two years ago.

Enforcement began this year.

Creation of the fishing area — Hawaii’s first — is linked directly to findings of a new study that, for the first time, puts hard numbers on the decline of the state’s reef fishing stocks. While commercial fishing farther out to sea doubtless takes more fish from the ocean, it is near-shore locations from which many families and communities derive an important part of their food intake.

The study was published in August in a prominent online journal, “Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems.” In the weeks since it appeared, the research has gotten attention throughout the state.

The lead author, Alan Friedlander of the Fisheries Ecology Research Lab at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is a veteran of decades of data-gathering on Kauai, and figured prominently in development of the community fishing area.

Using sophisticated data manipulation tools, the study was able to quantify, for the first time, what many fishermen instinctively believe to be true: Large declines in reef fish, on which much of Hawaii’s subsistence fishing depend, have occurred since 2000.

Alarmingly, 40 percent of fish reviewed in the study were smaller and less developed than they were 20 years ago. The decline is most acute in the Main Hawaiian Islands.

Friedlander said in an interview that the study might be interpreted as simply restating what many inherently believe about fish becoming less plentiful than they used to be. But the value of the research, Friedlander said in the interview, is that it puts specific numbers on the problem, bringing far greater credibility to conclusions many people had already reached.

A finding that has not gotten any publicity since the research came out, however, is that near-shore fisheries on Kauai are in comparatively good condition.

People attending Sunday’s event seemed to agree.

Mina Morita, the former member of the Hawaii House of Representatives who was instrumental in setting in motion the legislation that created the Kauai community fishing area, said Friedlander’s new research provides critical validation to public education programs that are starting to focus on maintaining better discipline on fish supply.

“The really interesting thing is that this research is inter-disciplinary and, among other things, we now know what the fisheries used to look like and what they look like now,” she said.

“I’ve been working in Hanalei since 1992,” Friedlander said, “and I haven’t seen the wheels coming off (of fish stocks) on Kauai, especially in Hanalei.

“For Kauai, this is a critical juncture. We see these tipping points. We can learn from things that haven’t worked (and we’ve established) that it’s a lot easier to conserve things than fix them after they are broken.

“It’s a cautionary tale for Kauai. Things are still in relatively good shape, but it’s not going to stay that way” without enhanced awareness of the need to preserve fish stocks to assure food supplies for the future.

The Sunday event was a community talk story forum, whose audience included many with fishing backgrounds. One by one, community members emphasized the need for fishermen and women to be conscious of the natural life cycles and habits of the species they are looking for.

An unusually large fish, for example, may not be the prize it would once have seemed because it could be a female about to reproduce. Throwing it back could be a best case option.

“Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders were more focused on when not to fish than when to fish,” Friedlander said. “There is a portion of people who do the right thing and those who would do the right thing if they knew what that is.”

Especially with the visitor influx of the last few decades, fishing in Hawaii has moved beyond something in which only locals participate.

“Fishing licenses might do something (about visitor fishing indiscretions,) Friedlander said.

“It’s that ‘right versus responsibility’ thing that has been lost. When the community starts monitoring its own resources and people see that others care about the place, it resonates.”

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