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Shark feeding issue sure to surface again

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Environmentalists, residents and a neighborhood board say they will continue efforts to stop shark feeding in local waters after the governor’s veto of a bill to stiffen penalties for tour boat operators doing the practice in Hawaii waters.

Meanwhile, tour operators and their supporters called the vetoed bill a misguided attempt to stop a handful of companies from educating locals and visitors on the misunderstood sea creatures.

House Bill 2583, vetoed Tuesday, would have allowed the state to impound vessels caught chumming waters to attract sharks for commercial tours. Although tour boats have been prohibited from feeding sharks in state waters since 2002, bill proponents argued that Hawaii’s enforcement efforts and meager penalties were not enough to get companies to hang up their chum buckets.

"We understand that there may have been some difficulty with enforcement, but we feel that the law was important to curtail that practice," said Greg Knudsen, chairman of the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board. "This measure to increase fines was an effort to increase the violations so that it would make it worth their while to obey the law."

Despite state and federal laws prohibiting shark feeding, a handful of tours still operate in the gray area between jurisdictional boundaries, or via loopholes in the federal law that allow shark feeding for science.

The vetoed bill would have bolstered existing state laws, imposing new penalties on tour operators caught feeding sharks within three miles of the shore. Under the law, violators could have had their vessels impounded and faced up to $15,000 in fines.

In her statement of objection, Lingle said she vetoed the measure not because she disagreed with the harsher penalties, but because of concerns with the bill’s wording. The governor said that the bill’s title — A Bill for an Act Relating to Impounded Vessels — violated a provision in the Hawaii Constitution requiring that the name of a law accurately reflect its substance. The governor also said that the bill violated a requirement that all laws address one subject only.

"The establishment of civil and administrative penalties for shark feeding appears to go beyond the scope of the subject expressed in the title of this bill," Lingle wrote.

HB 2583 was really a combination of two measures. The original bill dealt with impoundment costs for unauthorized vessels moored in state waters, but was married with shark feeding legislation after members of the Hawaii Kai community petitioned the government to stop planned shark tour operations in Maunalua Bay.

According to Knudsen, a number of Hawaii Kai residents were concerned that shark tour operations would disrupt the local marine ecosystem and pose a threat to swimmers.

"We do feel that the shark tours themselves are intrusive and disrupt the natural behavior of the sharks," Knudsen said. "A number of community members came to the board and said that this needed attention."

Protesters in Hawaii Kai also received the support of marine conservation groups, including Safe Waters for Hawaii and the Surfrider Foundation.

"Surfrider supports the ban because we don’t feel it’s healthy for the ecosystem, creating an unnatural food source," said Oahu Chapter Co-chairman Tim Tybuszewski. "It’s a shame it had to get derailed on a technicality."

Shark feeding proponents maintain that the tours do not pose a threat to swimmers or marine ecosystems.

"For opponents to claim that it’s a safety issue … they need to prove it," said Kent Fonoimoana, a former commercial fisherman from Kahuku.

With the Legislature’s decision not to call a special session to overturn the governor’s vetoes, the shark feeding bill must be reintroduced in the Legislature to become law. Though discouraged by the governor’s veto, supporters of the bill take comfort in the fact that it was derailed on a seemingly small technicality.

"We had the right idea with the wrong wording," said Rep. Gene Ward (R, Hawaii Kai-Kalama Valley). "This is not the fish that got away. It’s the one that we’re going to reel back."


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