Ban may protect three Hawaii fish species

Aim is to protect species that feed on invasive seaweeds that are overtaking corals
Rob Perez, Honolulu Advertiser 5 May 09;

Local fishers may soon be prevented from taking three families of popular reef fish from a small section of the Maui coastline as a way to help the beleaguered corals in that area recover.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources board recently approved a ban on the taking of parrotfish, surgeonfish and chubs, along with sea urchins, along a roughly one-mile section of the coast in North Ka'anapali.

Members of all three herbivorous fish families and the urchins are important grazers of seaweed, which has overtaken much of the coral along that section of the shoreline.

The ban, if approved by Gov. Linda Lingle, would mark the first time the state has adopted protections for specific species as a broader strategy for restoring the health of a reef in a particular area.

"This is a very proactive approach," said Cynthia Hunter, an assistant professor of marine biology at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa. If it proves effective, as has been the case in other places outside Hawai'i, the approach could be used elsewhere locally where similar conditions exist, Hunter said.

The ban would apply to the nearshore waters from Keka'a Point to Honokowai Beach Park, and that section would become the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area.

The new marine management plan still must be approved by Lingle before it takes effect. Her spokesman yesterday said the plan's rules would go through the regular review process once received from the board.
feeding also banned

Russell Sparks, education specialist with the agency's Division of Aquatic Resources' Maui office, said the coral in the affected area has declined by about 50 percent over the past 14 years, and the fish population there also is not at the level it should be, when compared with similar environments.

The decline in parrotfish, surgeonfish, chubs and sea urchins has contributed to the surge in invasive seaweeds that are overtaking the corals, and the aim of the new program is to protect the fish that are critical to keeping the seaweed, or algae, in check, according to Sparks, who oversaw the development of the new management plan. He said other factors, such as land-based pollution, also have contributed to the degradation of the reefs.

The Kahekili plan also would entail a ban on people feeding the fish — similar to what is in place at Hanauma Bay on O'ahu.

A feeding ban is important, especially in an area with many tourists, so that the fish don't get full on artificial food and will continue their natural role of feeding on seaweed, Sparks said.

Sparks said the proposal has been about two years in the making and differs from other approaches the state previously has taken to protect marine areas.

In some instances, the state banned the taking of any marine life from an area, mostly because the area is considered special, such as Hanauma Bay, he said. In other instances, the state created protections for certain species because of their dwindling numbers or to resolve conflicts among ocean users.

But this is the first time the state is attempting to outlaw the taking of specific species to achieve the broader goal of restoring the reef's health, Sparks said. "This approach we're doing is really ... unique," he said.
hawaiians' rights

The strategy has not been without controversy.

At a public hearing in Lahaina in February, the department was criticized for singling out fishing practices.

Many opponents said they believe that land-based pollution, overdevelopment and general overuse of the reefs are bigger problems affecting coral condition than overfishing. Concerns about restricting Native Hawaiian harvesting rights also were raised at the hearing.

"As a Native Hawaiian (who) is of this ahupua'a, we have rights to gather within our ahupua'a at any time for any reason to sustain and better our health and living conditions in any way we see fit," said Lahaina resident Ui'lani Kapu in written testimony.

But scientists, fishers and others voiced support for the plan.

"Protecting herbivorous fish populations in an area off Kahekili should result in an increase in fish populations, an increase in fish size, a decrease in algae growth and a healthier reef ecosystem overall," wrote Alan Friedlander, a UH zoology professor.

The proposal was approved unanimously by the DLNR board, Sparks said. Violations, if deemed criminal, would be classified as petty misdemeanors subject to fines. A first-time offense, for instance, would result in a fine of not less than $100.

Because the reefs of the main Hawaiian Islands generally have been on the decline, scientists and others have urged the state to be more aggressive in using marine protected areas and other policies to help safeguard and restore the health of the nearshore ecosystems.