By VALERIE MONSON, Staff Writer
KAHULUI - Instead of a ban on gill nets implemented by the state, Maui fishermen called for a return to a method similar to what Native Hawaiians practiced in ancient times to regulate the use of the sea and keep the supply of fish sustainable.
"We should all go back to the olden days: take what you need and leave the rest," thundered Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell Sr., as a crowd of more than 100 at Maui Waena cafeteria erupted into applause Thursday night. "We need to go back to the ahupuaa system."
The proposed statewide ban on gill nets (or lay nets) was met with mixed approval, at best, from a restless throng that included not only fishermen, but other ocean users and environmentalists, as well. Those not involved with fishing seemed more inclined to favor a ban than those who rely on the sea to feed their families or provide a paycheck.
Nearly everyone, however, took to Maxwell's recommendation of returning to a line of thinking in tune with the ahupuaa system that divided the island into 12 districts that stretched from the mountain to the sea. Those living within a district were free to gather and fish unless the konohiki - the chief or manager of the district - declared a kapu (ban) because the resource needed time to replenish.
"Everything was in unison," said Maxwell.
That was probably the highlight of the 2¢-hour meeting conducted by the Division of Aquatic Resources to gather input on a proposed ban that would address mile-long nets that have cropped up off Oahu in the last few years, gobbling up so many fish that locals have complained. The ban would not apply to throw nets, cast nets, fence/bag nets, aquarium nets, lobster nets, opelu or akule nets. Neither would it apply to lobster traps or fish traps.
Where exemptions would be permitted, restrictions would still apply that would require constant monitoring and registering of the gill net. If endangered species were caught, they would have to be released immediately and the mesh would be no less than 2.75 inches stretched to allow smaller fish to escape unharmed. Maximum soak time would be four hours, the same requirement under current rules.
More exemptions could be made for traditional or cultural use.
As the meeting went on, others built on Maxwell's suggestion. Ed Lindsey said the konohiki should be an expert fisherman or fishermen from each district who would work with the community to set rules.
"Everybody knows who the good fishermen are," said Lindsey. Because of the respect they earn from their respective areas, their advice would, hopefully, be accepted by the masses.
One of those expert fishermen, Felimon Sadang of Lahaina, liked the idea of the community working together to hash out its own ocean code instead of operating under blanket restrictions that might be appropriate for one place but not another. And he wanted things to start now.
"When you guys leave, it's over, it's pau," said Sadang to the DAR officials in charge of the discussion. "Why don't you guys pick a group of fishermen, condo owners, Jet Ski people and let 'em work it out. Let us form a committee to iron out our differences and make rules and regulations we can all agree on."
Others agreed that it was not just gill net fishermen who could be causing a depletion of fish. A host of culprits emerged over the night: windsurfers, kitesurfers, insensitive and greedy newcomers, companies renting personal watercraft, developers who cause runoff and tour boats that pollute the waters.
Charlie Villalon said those companies that make money off the ocean should be charged a fee on each piece of equipment or marine activity they sell. That fund could be used to help the state Department of Land and Natural Resources beef up enforcement. Lack of enforcement allows selfish fishermen to ruin it for the responsible ones, he said.
Villalon also suggested stiffer penalties for violations but told officials that Native Hawaiians who depend on the sea must be accommodated.
"You can't take anymore from the Hawaiians," he said. "We're losing everything. I feed my kids off the ocean."
Most fishermen who spoke acknowledged that there were fewer fish off Maui, but all claimed they were not to blame because they took only what they needed.
Jerry Stowell couldn't take it anymore.
"Nobody wants to take responsibility for the fact that there's less fish out there, that the fish are all zero, pau," he cried. "We have to put on some regulations because we can't get together and somebody's got to be responsible."
Even if stricter regulations become reality, it probably won't be anytime soon, based on the DLNR's track record on the issue. A Gill Net Task Force started looking at management rules in 1998. Ten statewide public meetings were held in 2002 on an initial proposal to tighten the rules on gill nets, including recommendations to have every net registered and to limit use to daytime hours. But the public heard little follow-up until the Board of Land and Natural Resources in December authorized the DAR to hold a new round of public meetings on a gill net ban.
Thursday's meeting was one in a round of sessions being held across the state. Before any rules can be adopted, there will be more analysis, a draft of proposed rules and a round of public hearings.
Whether the ahupuaa system finds a place in those amended recommendations won't be known for a while, but, most likely, the punishment for fishermen who violate the rules will have to be modified from ancient times.
"The penalty was stringent," said Maxwell after the meeting. "It was death."
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