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Hawaiʻi’s over-fishing problems reach Niʻihau, endanger its community

Fishermen, primarily from Kauai, have been fishing in Niihau waters for decades, steadily depleting its residents of their primary food-source. The senate's Native Hawaiian caucus, along with the DLNR, intend to put a stop to that.

Will Caron

“I don’t remember a single time the people of Niʻihau have come [to Oʻahu],” said Senator Clayton Hee at today’s press conference regarding the future of Niʻiahu’s shoreline fisheries. “But they’re here now. This is very unusual and it’s very difficult for them to be here. But that is the gravity of this issue.”

Together with the other Native Hawaiian members of the Hawaiʻi State Senate (Senators Galuteria, Solomon, Kidani, English and Kahele), Senator Hee intends to introduce legislation in the upcoming 2014 session that would protect the waters surrounding Niʻihau from being fished by anyone other than residents of Niʻihau.

“People with the financial means from the nearest island, Kauai, have been traveling to Niʻihau for one simple reason: It is far easier to pick ʻopihi and to dive and troll around the shores of Niʻihau then on Kauaʻi, where their own reef fisheries have been over-harvested,” said Hee in his opening remarks.

This is a serious problem for the people of Niʻihau, as they depend on the reef fisheries around their island as their primary food-source and this sort of poaching has already been going on for decades.

“What is not on Niʻihau are stores to buy food,” said Hee. “And that is why we are here this morning.”

Currently there are are no rules or laws prohibiting Kauai residents or others from fishing or picking ʻopihi out of Niʻihau waters.

“It’s not illegal,” confirmed Hee. “But it is wrong. When your ice-box is empty, you don’t go help yourself to someone else’s.”

Bruce Robinson (who, along with his brother Keith, is the current owner of Niʻihau) said that the situation is about more than just food.

“Our people are dependent on the sea shore, not only for food, but also for maluhia [peace, safety, tranquility],” said Robinson. “It is a place where our people go for healing and spiritual well-being. Without that, our culture will not survive.”

In addition to legislation, the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) intends to create new rules and regulations to extend protection of Niʻihau’s resources while allowing for some off-shore fishing.

“DLNR understands that Niʻihau is unique and needs State protection, said William ʻAila Jr., DLNR’s director. “As of now, there’s nothing to prevent someone from Kauaʻi coming to Niʻihau to harvest ʻopihi, other than the fact that we’re highlighting this issue so that the Kauaʻi people … can look internally to search their naʻau [guiding feelings] and understand the consequences of their actions,” continued ʻAila.

“The name of the game is compromise,” said Hee. “We will need all the help we can get. That’s why we have representatives here from the Native Hawaiian Civic Clubs, Kamehameha Schools and the Native Hawaiian Bar Association. We’ll be looking to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for assistance as well.”