Bill to protect sharks, rays moves to House

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BO PARDAU/Community Contributor A female tiger shark approaches an underwater photographer at Honokohau Harbor.
BO PARDAU/Community Contributor A white tip reef shark moves into its resting place in Kailua Bay.

KAILUA-KONA — A bill that would protect sharks and expand protections to all rays within state waters is cruising through the state Legislature.

Senate Bill 2079, co-introduced by Democratic Sens. Mike Gabbard of Oahu and Russell Ruderman of Puna and four co-sponsors, seeks to protect the animals for ecological purposes and their value to Native Hawaiian cultural practices and the ocean recreation industry.

The measure passed its third reading in the Senate and was sent to the House for further consideration. The House had yet to hear the bill’s first reading as of Wednesday.

The bill says protection is needed for sharks because as ocean predators near the top of the food chain, the cartilaginous fish keep the ecosystem balanced, regulate populations of other marine life and ensure healthy fish stock and reefs.

“In 2010, the state banned the taking of shark fins. However, we didn’t actually ban the capture or killing of whole sharks,” said Gabbard. “This bill is needed because sharks are the top predator in the ocean food chain and their numbers are declining.

“We’ve heard about cases of cruelty involving sharks in our islands, which DLNR says have been difficult to prosecute with our existing law. It makes sense for Hawaii to be a leader in marine species protection and this is another way we can do that.”

The bill notes safeguards are necessary for rays and sharks as they are “more vulnerable than most other fish species” because they are long-living, slow-growing and begin reproducing at an advanced age and produce relatively few offspring annually.

“Sharks and rays on the reefs not only play important ecological roles, but are also valued figures in Hawaiian culture and are important economically to ocean recreation industries and to tourism in Hawaii,” the measure reads.

In its current form, the bill would establish fines for “knowingly capturing, taking, possessing, abusing, or entangling a shark, whether alive or dead, within state marine waters.” Violating the law would be a misdemeanor offense, with fines ranging from $500-$10,000 and an administrative fine up to $10,000 per shark.

Exceptions are listed for research and educational purposes, as well as rights protected by the Hawaii Constitution.

“This does carefully protect traditional and customary rights and it doesn’t infringe on anyone’s native gathering rights,” Ruderman said.

Hawaii is home to more than 40 species of sharks and 10 species of rays, according to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Sharks received some protection in 2010 when Hawaii became the first state in the nation to prohibit the possession, sale or distribution of shark fins.

Manta rays received protection in 2009, when Act 92 was signed into law by former Gov. Linda Lingle. The bill established criminal penalties and administrative fines for knowingly killing or capturing manta rays within state waters.

The current measure would expand those protections to cover all types of ray, or hihimanu. It would remain a misdemeanor offense with fines ranging from $500-$10,000 and an administrative fine up to $10,000 per ray.

“We included rays in the bill because right now state law only bans the taking of manta rays,” Gabbard said. We wanted to provide this same protection to the many other ray species. Also, since the shark fin ban went into effect, restaurants are now using the gills from mantas for gill soup. This helps with keeping our ocean ecosystem healthy.”

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