LIHUE — Lawmakers in both the Hawaii Senate and House are pushing for legislation that would prohibit outsiders from fishing around “The Forbidden Island” of Niihau.
Kauai legislators, however, aren’t taking the bait.
“I’m against it, I’m against it, I’m against it,” said Rep. Dee Morikawa, D-Koloa-Niihau. “Nobody should be shutting down those resources when it’s for everybody’s use.”
Two bills — House Bill 1921 and Senate Bill 2125 — would make it illegal to “take, attempt to take, or possess aquatic life” within two miles of any island with a total population between 100 and 500 individuals.
With a population of about 130, Niihau is the lone Hawaiian island that meets the specifications.
The only exception to the bills’ prohibitions would be residents of the island, as well as individuals accompanied by someone who is.
“Visitors from outside the Niihau community are capable of traveling great distances in the pursuit of fish, and seek to exploit the abundant resources of Niihau for commercial or other purposes,” state the bills from each chamber. “Niihau residents have expressed ongoing and deepening concerns over the increasing impact of outside fishing interests and report declines in the abundance and accessibility of resources sustainably harvested and relied upon by Niihau residents for generations.”
Morikawa said the bills are being pushed by the Hawaiian Affairs Caucus, with nothing to support claims that resources are being depleted there.
“Where are the facts?” Morikawa asked. “There have been no studies. There’s been no research.”
A third bill, House Bill 1685, would establish a “community based subsistence fishing area” around the island to restrict fishing within one mile of the shoreline. Another, House Bill 1687, would prohibit commercial fishing in the same area.
And yet another, House Bill 1686, would require the Department of Land and Natural Resources to adopt rules to regulate the taking or harvesting of opihi from the coastal waters or nearshore waters of Niihau by nonresidents.
Rep. James “Jimmy” Tokioka, D-Koloa-Wailua, said both he and Rep. Derek Kawakami, D-Wailua-Haena, are against such proposals. Instead, Tokioka supports coming up with a way to resolve the ongoing issue for both local fishermen and the people of Niihau.
“We cannot punish everyone for the acts of a small number of people,” he said.
Sen. Ron Kouchi, D-Kauai, Niihau, could not be reached for comment.
During a press conference in November, Niihau owners Bruce and Leiana Robinson, accompanied by eight Niihau residents and the Hawaiian Caucus, requested that the state establish a “no-fishing zone” around their island.
“Unlike every other populated Hawaiian Island, Niihau is the only island that does not have any commercial stores where food can be purchased,” said a press release from Sen. Clayton Hee, who co-introduced SB 2125. “As such, the nearshore reef fishery serves as their predominant source of food as it has been since time immemorial.”
Kauai resident Dustin Akita said he and his family have been fishing around Niihau and nearby Kaula for four generations, and that he just recently starting taking his 10-year-old stepson.
“For me, I feel like that’s part of my backyard,” said the 41-year-old, lifelong angler. “The worst thing is (it’s) going to kill the culture for the next generation.”
Forty-year-old Walton Souza has been a full-time commercial fisherman for 13 years. He said passing such a law would “greatly impact” his business and way of life.
Souza makes weekly fishing trips to Niihau and also utilizes the island’s calmer waters for refuge during large surf and strong winds.
“For myself … I hope they kill the bill,” he said. “I hope something can be worked out other than a 100 percent closure.”
In HB 1921 and SB 2125, legislators argue that the “unabated and growing disregard of the subsistence needs and traditional resource management practices of Niihau’s residents, in spite of 10 years of informal requests for restraint, now calls for strong and decisive legislative action.”
Greg Holzman, a Westside resident who has been fishing off Niihau’s coast for close to 30 years, said his biggest complaint is that the bills are being introduced by legislators from other islands, with no one consulting the people of Kauai.
“It just doesn’t seem to me that that’s right,” he said. “They should be hearing the other side of the story.”
That other side, Holzman said, is that the Niihau people almost exclusively fish from the shore, and rarely target the same species as he and other fishermen from Kauai do.
Additionally, Holzman said many Niihauans fish the waters surrounding Kauai.
“There’s got to be a better way,” he said of closing a large area of ocean. “Some sort of give and take.”
Ultimately, Holzman said it is an uncomfortable and sensitive subject because it relates directly to Niihauans, who are part of the Kauai community.
“No one wants to negatively affect them,” he said.
All of the above House bills were introduced by Big Island Reps. Cindy Evans and Faye Hanohano, and are scheduled to be heard Wednesday by the House Committee on Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs.
• Chris D’Angelo, environmental reporter, can be reached at 245-0441 or firstname.lastname@example.org.