Fee to fish?: Group sets public meetings to break down report on non-commercial fishing regulation

  • Roland Tanaka fishes on the seawall on Alii Drive. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)
  • Fishermen try to catch fish off the seawall on Alii Drive. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)
  • Kaina Lee watches his son Chevy fish in Milolii. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)
  • Rayden Duarte Kamoku fishes in Milolii. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)
  • Fishermen fish at Keauhou Bay (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

KAILUA-KONA — Almost two years after Conservation International Hawaii and the Western Pacific Fishery Council released a feasibility study on a regulatory system for noncommercial fishing in Hawaii, contributors are touring the state to discuss it with the public.

Aarin Gross, senior program manager for policy and operations with Conservation International Hawaii, said the time lag resulted because report details didn’t circulate on their own as effectively as the group had expected.

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“The people we had hoped would gain access to this information probably didn’t have access to it,” she said.

Public meetings meant to break down the controversial issue of a regulatory system for recreational fishing in Hawaii, which will carry with it annual fees for local fishermen, are set for both Kailua-Kona and Hilo.

Presenters scheduled the first from 5-8 p.m. Tuesday at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority Gateway Center in Kailua-Kona. The meeting in Hilo is 5-8 p.m. Wednesday at the Mokupapapa Discovery Center.

Meetings are also being convened on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Molokai and Lanai.

The report “took no collective position” as to whether the state should implement a mandatory noncommercial fishing registry, permit or license (RPL) system.

However, it did note “that there are no legal or constitutional barriers in Hawaii that would prohibit the implementation of a new RPL system,” adding it’s possible to design one without violating Native Hawaiian gathering rights protected under state law.

Gathering info

Conservation International Hawaii program director Matt Ramsey wants to make one thing clear to those planning to attend — that his organization isn’t lobbying on behalf of either side of the issue.

For the study group, it’s all about the information.

“This meeting is not part of the rulemaking process,” Ramsey said. “I think a large misconception out there is that this is somehow related to state regulation or a legislative effort, and that’s definitely not the case. While those two things may happen on their own, we are not involved in that at all.”

It’s also all about the information for Brian Neilson, acting administrator of the Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources.

Neilson, his agency and its parent agency would all be directly involved in any implementation of an RPL system in Hawaii, which he said they’re “very interested in.”

Community feedback generated in the meetings will inform and mold a push specifically for a licensing system option, possibly as early as this year, he added.

Legislation

However, DAR/DLNR can’t implement a licensing system of its own accord. It requires statutory authority by way of the state Legislature.

House Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-North Kona, said multiple bills have been introduced to address noncommercial fishing regulation during her six years in office, including proposals to study the matter or levying fees only on nonresident fishermen.

For a licensing system that also charges residents a fee, Lowen said there’s really only one feasible legislative path.

“If the administration is not on board with it, it would probably be dead in the water,” said Lowen, meaning any bill with a chance to cross the finish line would have to come from relevant agencies with Gov. David Ige’s backing rather than from a state legislator.

“When DAR and DLNR are ready to spearhead it as something that needs to happen in the state, then I think we could start the work of getting legislators on board,” she added. “Because obviously, it will be controversial.”

Neilson said that might happen as early as January.

“We are thinking about the possibility of introducing legislation in this upcoming session,” he said, “but we’re still getting feedback.”

If legislation passed, details would be ironed out through the administrative rulemaking process, which would allow multiple opportunities for public input.

Strong opinions

Hawaii is currently the only state without noncommercial fishing regulation in any form.

Local fishermen, particularly those of Native Hawaiian descent, have fished island waters all their lives. Many see the practice as not just a right and/or a necessity, but as an integral part of their culture.

“I recreationally fish, but it’s to put food on the table,” said Billy Lum, 61, who’s been casting lines on three different islands for the last half-century. “I know a lot of Hawaiians are going to be totally against anything like that because we’re so used to being able to go out and provide food for the family, so now having to buy a license for it …”

Many fishery managers, however, say the benefits outweigh what would be a minimal cost to fishermen. Creating a licensing system allows the state to build a database and gather a sense of how many people are fishing recreationally, information it currently doesn’t have. It also provides an avenue to circulate information about catch limits and size limitations to fishermen.

All this, Neilson said, will maintain a rich fishing environment in Hawaii for generations to come, and at what he believes is likely to be a reasonable cost.

While no figure has been decided on, Neilson said the annual price now in mind for a license is $5 and would come with fee waiver exceptions for children, the elderly, veterans and the financially disadvantaged.

“We don’t want this to be a hardship on our Hawaii residents,” he said. “The cost could be significantly higher for nonresidents.”

Freshwater licenses currently run $5 each, while DAR bumped commercial fishing licenses from $50 to $100 annually within the last year.

Lum explained most recreational fishermen, particularly those of Hawaiian heritage, will have less of a problem with forking over a $5 bill than with what the payment symbolizes. He understands the benefits Neilson laid out and could see himself supporting a reasonably priced licensing system, but he’d also want to know where the money would go.

Neilson said the aim of the fees would be to set up and manage an online licensing system, which would allow residents and nonresidents to acquire licenses immediately so as not to hurt local fishing tour operators. Physical locations like tackle shops interested in participating may also be set up.

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While the statewide meetings on the matter are sure to be full of strong opinions, Lum pointed out that it may not matter much whether a licensing system is ever introduced in Hawaii.

“In all the years I’ve been fishing, I’ve never ever seen any kind of enforcement as far as fishing regulations,” Lum said. “I know there’s plenty of fishermen out there who don’t give a rip.”

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