KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii’s shark population will be left to fend for itself, at least for another year, after legislation meant to protect the fish was altered at the eleventh hour.
House Bill 808 was originally intended to extend protections already in place for manta rays to all rays, as well as expanding the protected species under the measure to include all sharks. The legislation would have made it illegal to “capture, take, possess, abuse or entangle any shark, whether alive or dead, or kill any shark within state marine waters,” with exceptions including those for academic research.
The bill remained more or less in tact all the way to conference committee before it was amended to remove protections for sharks entirely. The same proposed protections as described above, which already apply to manta rays, will be applied to all rays if the governor signs the final version of HB 808 now on his desk.
But with dozens of pages of testimony overwhelmingly in support of including protections for sharks, conservationists are wondering what changed.
Sen. Kai Kahele, D-Hilo, Senate chairman of the conference committee that oversaw the bill, said it was concern from the academic community that was behind the last-minute alterations. Potential problems were expressed by the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology of the University of Hawaii at Manoa to House conference committee chairman and Oahu Democrat Rep. Ryan Yamane, Kahele added.
“They do shark testing (and) research,” Kahele said. “(Yamane) was concerned that some of their concerns had not been addressed. I guess collaboration had not happened with the research component. And so they decided to take the sharks out of the bill.”
Rep. David Tarnas, D-North Kona, South Kohala, North Kohala, also sat on the conference committee. He went into greater detail as to some of the issues the scientific community brought to the table.
“You have to tag these animals, you may have to catch them,” Tarnas explained. “And if you’re not allowed to ‘harass’ them at all, are you allowed to do any of that?”
A stipulation of HB 808 called for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to develop administrative rules to define more closely the freedoms afforded by the measure within the parameters of research activity. But the scientific community found that action inadequate.
Kim Holland, founder of the Shark Research Group that operates as part of UH-Manoa, in testimony described the bill as unnecessary because of how infrequently sharks are sought after by fishermen or otherwise. She also called the measure unenforceable because legitimate fishing practices used in some industry sectors are the same that those hunting sharks would employ.
“It will be virtually impossible to prove that someone is ‘knowingly’ fishing for sharks,” wrote Holland, adding state enforcement resources already are insufficient for practices the state polices now.
She contended researchers would bear the brunt of the bill, being forced to apply for permits from DLNR personnel without scientific expertise on shark research and limited data from which an evaluation of permit request validity might be drawn.
Holland also said the bill was too ambiguous in defining terms such as “take” and “harassment.”
“This is not an environment that is conducive to the long-term perspectives or stability that are necessary to foster the research upon which science-based management depends,” she said.
Kahele said the Senate thought extending protections for all rays was better than nothing and agreed to the amendments. Yet the Legislature’s decision left many disappointed, including Michael Domeier, president of the Marine Conservation Science Institute.
Sharks are vital to the ecosystem, he said, and they reproduce and age at slower rates than many members of the animal kingdom. Without protections against indiscriminate take or slaughter, state legislators are taking a risk.
Hawaii has no direct shark fisheries, meaning there is no industry that relies solely or primarily on catching sharks to put food on the table. Sometimes sharks are killed by accident, and Kahele acknowledged there could be some potential impact to the state’s longline fishermen were HB 808 passed in its original form.
However, Kahele and Tarnas confirmed there was almost no pushback from any sector of the fishing industry when it came to including sharks in the proposed measure. Domeier added that the way the law would work wouldn’t punish those who violated it accidentally. Instead, it would be the small group of blatant violators experiencing the effect and intent of the proposed law.
Email Max Dible at email@example.com.