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Enforcers on hunt for bottomfish poachers

By Gary T. Kubota

LAST UPDATED: 4:12 a.m. HST, Jul 14, 2011

Federal and state officials have stepped up enforcement of regulations banning the taking of several bottomfish in the main Hawaiian Islands.

State and federal agencies, including the U.S. Coast Guard, are conducting additional patrols this month in island waters as well as dockside and at boat ramps, said Jeffrey Pollack, special agent for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Pollack said the agency has received information that makes authorities suspect there is prohibited activity occurring in Hawaii waters.

"We do have information that this could be going on," he said.

Pollack said the patrols and boarding of boats will allow the Coast Guard, state conservation agents and NOAA officials to check for compliance in a number of areas, including licensing, safety and the seasonal ban on bottomfishing for seven species.

The federal and state ban on taking the Deep 7 bottom fish — opakapaka, kalekale, lehi, onaga, ehu, hapuupuu and gindai — started on March 12 and will continue until Aug. 31.

Officials said that during the seasonal ban, it is also illegal to sell or offer any Deep 7 fish caught in the main Hawaiian Islands waters — within 200 miles of any island in the state.

The exception is Deep 7 bottomfish caught legally in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands or the Pacific Remote Islands Areas, or legally imported into Hawaii.

NOAA officials received a 36-foot-long safe boat last year that will be used in interagency efforts to protect fisheries in Deep 7 fishing areas, in addition to state conservation and Coast Guard patrols, Pollack said.

The ban on catching several bottomfish has been occurring for the past four years in state and federal waters in an attempt to keep certain species at a sustainable level.

The catch quota will be increasing from the 254,000 pounds that was set in the 2010-2011 season. The Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council has recommended setting an annual catch target of 325,000 pounds for the Deep 7 in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

In the past, some Hawaii fishermen have been critical of the bans placed on bottomfish.

Layne Nakagawa, a fisherman, said he's not opposed to the ban if government officials have the science to prove what they're saying, but so far, the science supporting certain aspects of the ban has been weak.

Nakagawa said the state continues to ban bottomfishing throughout the year in 12 areas of the main Hawaiian Islands, supposedly because these areas are where spawning occurs. He said the state has not shown proof those 12 areas are where the bottomfish spawn.

"What if those areas are not spawning areas, and we're fishing in spawning areas?" he said.

State Division of Aquatic Resources official Francis Oishi said the state consulted scientists as well as fishermen and held public meetings before designating the 12 banned areas in 2006.

Oishi, the program fisheries manager, said a University of Hawaii study is being conducted to determine the effectiveness of the ban.

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