HB 553 – More Protection for Hawaii’s Sharks?

Picture of sharks

By: J.S.

It may soon be a misdemeanor in Hawaii to catch or kill sharks, with fines beginning at $500 all the way up to $10,000 for the third offense. House Bill 553 was introduced in January, with the stated purpose of protecting sharks for their ecological value while not criminalizing the accidental capture and release of sharks that may be captured while fishing for other species as allowed by statute or rule. Known as manō in Hawaiian, sharks are respected in Hawaiian culture. Over the last decade and a half the state has taken strides in protecting this important species, such as the 2010 ban on the gathering, sale, trade and possession of shark fins, and the 2006 creation of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

There are 40 different varieties of sharks that pass through Hawaii’s waters. As of 2019, 31% of those were endangered, along with their cousins, the rays. As ocean predators near the top of the food chain, sharks keep the ecosystem balanced, regulate populations of other marine life, and ensure healthy fish stock and reefs. When these top predators are lost, there are ecosystem impacts far beyond their home ranges—“cascading effects that are amplified the further down the [food] chain you proceed,” says Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Sharks are frequently hunted by humans for shark fin soup, one of the largest contributing factors to shark endangerment. Another top factor is that sharks frequently become bycatch, being unintentionally ensnared in large fishing nets by commercial fishing boats. Over the last number of years different countries and some states in the US have outlawed brutal shark finning. In 2010 Hawaii banned the possession, sale, trade and distribution of shark fins, though shark finning continues to be widespread in international waters. 

HB 553 intends to ensure that intentional fishing of Hawaii’s protected sharks is eliminated, adding that gill nets dropped in shark nursery habitats frequently lead to young sharks being entangled and killed. The bill leaves room for protection of sanctioned fishing practices and accidental shark catches, making it unclear how sharks will be protected from gill nets through the new bill. Shark populations do not simply return overnight. According to the DLNR, Most shark species, including those sought by commercial fisheries, are slow to mature, produce relatively small litters, and may not reproduce until 8 to 20 years of age. Most female sharks do not develop new eggs until after giving birth, and may not breed again for a couple of years. Compare this with most bony fish species, which spawn hundreds or thousands of eggs at a time, year after year.

Protecting sharks is an important issue, and educating the public about shark misconceptions- namely that they are incredibly dangerous and pose a large threat to humans, is also important. While sharks reportedly kill under 100 people per year, often far less than that, it is estimated that millions of sharks are killed yearly for their fins, oil and teeth, or as bycatch. It will take educating the public, and bringing conservationists, lawmakers and other stakeholders to the table, in order to pass laws that will effectively protect sharks in Hawaiian waters. It will be important for the state to address the real issues surrounding shark conservation, some of which are not well detailed in this bill. The state will also need to be clear on how this bill will be enforced so it is indeed effective.