No love for the mano: Sharks removed from marine protection bill

A whitetip reef shark swims out from its lair in Honaunau Bay. Barry Fackler/Community Contributor
A white tip reef shark moves into its resting place in Kailua Bay. (BO PARDAU/Community Contributor)

Correction: A previous version of this article used pronouns indicating that Kim Holland, founder of the Shark Research Group that operates as part of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, is a woman. Holland is a man. It the policy of West Hawaii Today to remove or correct any incorrect or misleading information as soon as it is brought to the attention of the publication.

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 11th hour.


House Bill 808 was originally intended to extend protections already in place for manta rays to all rays, as well as expanding the species protected 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 measure went on to define such action as a misdemeanor, designating penalties of a $500 fine, a $2,000 fine and a $10,000 fine for first, second and third offenses, respectively.

The bill remained more or less in tact all the way to conference committee, the last step in the legislative process before moving to the desk of Gov. David Ige for his signature, 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 awaiting him 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 Rep. Ryan Yamane (D-Oahu), 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 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. He 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 are already insufficient for practices the state polices now.

He 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 like “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,” he said.

Kahele said the Senate felt extending protections for all rays was better than nothing and agreed to the amendments. Yet the Legislature’s decision left many disappointed, including President of the Marine Conservation Science Institute Michael Domeier.

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 long-line 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.

“There aren’t that many people like that in Hawaii, but on Oahu there have been cases where people have literally tortured sharks, left them on the beach with ropes tied on them or hung them on a sign to rot in the sun,” Domeier said. “It’s kind of disgusting. There’s no place in Hawaii for that kind of behavior.”

Tarnas said he believes legislative language will be reworked and attempts to afford the protections proposed for sharks in HB 808 will be resumed next session.

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