On June 8th, in honor of World Oceans Day, Hawaiian Governor David Ige signed nine measures into law, including one that will safeguard sharks and other marine life. Act 51 (House Bill 533) came into effect early last month.
According to the new legislation, it is now against the law to “knowingly capture, entangle, or kill any species of shark” in Hawaiian seas.
What are the penalties for breaking this law?
The penalties for breaking the statute are steep: $500 for a first offense, $2,000 for a second, and $10,000 for any subsequent violations. Further penalties may be imposed on offenders, including the confiscation or forfeiture of commercial maritime permits, vessels, and fishing equipment.
Yet, there are certain loopholes in the statute. For those who have been issued exemptions by the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), the statute does not apply. Sharks taken outside of the state’s marine seas with sufficient documentation, sharks captured, entangled, or killed in self-defense or the defense of another, and sharks captured or killed according to a permit issued by the DLNR are all exempt from the statute.
Sharks’ role in marine ecosystems and in native Hawaiian culture
We know that sharks play a crucial role in protecting marine ecosystems. According to Aquatic Resources Administrator of the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) Brian Neilson, “We also recognize their importance in native Hawaiian cultural practices and beliefs”.
According to the DLNR, “native Hawaiian cultural protocol, size and species restrictions, and a prohibition on species listed as endangered or threatened” are to be included in non-commercial licenses to collect sharks under Act 51.
In the future, the DLNR may issue administrative rules to carry out the new law. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has said that this may involve the accidental capture of sharks (bycatch) when fishing for another species and their subsequent release.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources advises against going fishing in shark-frequented locations, especially near shark-pupping grounds.
Shark legislation in Hawaii
Almost a decade ago, Hawaii was the first to enact new, crucial shark legislation. Hawaii outlawed the private ownership of shark fins in 2010. Shark fins are now illegal to own, buy, sell, or trade. Those who break the prohibition are subject to administrative fines starting at $5,000 for a first offense and increasing to $50,000 for a third or subsequent infraction. Repeat offenders may have their commercial maritime permits, vessels, and equipment confiscated in addition to a fine of up to $50,000 and a possible prison sentence of up to one year.
Overfishing is the primary danger to shark populations worldwide. One-third or more of sharks, rays, and chimeras are threatened with extinction due to overfishing. Each year, humans kill more than 100 million sharks. Recent research suggests that fishing has contributed to a decline in shark and ray populations of more than 70 percent worldwide since 1970. According to the research, the steep drop coincides with rising relative fishing pressure over time.
World Wildlife Fund reports that demand for shark flesh and fins is the main driver of overfishing, however, these animals are also sought for their leather, liver oil (also called squalene or squalane), and cartilage.
Around 73 percent of the estimated 100 million annual shark deaths are caused by the demand for shark fins. Finning sharks is an especially brutal practice. During the process of shark capture, the shark’s fin is severed while the animal is still conscious. After the fin has been cut off, the shark is released back into the water, where it will eventually drown, bleed to death, or be eaten by another animal.
The importance of protecting sharks
Shark populations are declining at an unsustainable rate. Sharks reach sexual maturity very slowly and have a low reproductive rate, making population recovery difficult. Female great white sharks, for instance, reach sexual maturity at the age of 16 to 20. Greenland sharks don’t become sexually mature until they are about 150 years old. Female scalloped hammerhead sharks—a species that can be found in Hawaii—do not reach reproductive maturity until 15 to 17 years of age. Many sharks are slaughtered before they can breed.
Furthermore, shark pregnancies last nine to twelve months on average, and certain shark species may not spawn every year.
Sharks are keystone species that play an important role in the maintenance of a healthy ocean ecosystem. Sharks, as apex predators, help to keep predatory species in check, thereby keeping populations strong and balanced. If shark populations disappear, major changes in the marine environment would be felt across the entire system, leading to the collapse of important fisheries and reducing human access to seafood.
The prohibition of shark fishing in Hawaii is a huge win for shark populations and a major milestone in shark conservation.