A series of amendments that would ban scuba spearfishing and limit aquarium fish collecting in West Hawaii waters is set to go to Gov. Neil Abercrombie next week, Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman William Aila said Friday.

The Attorney General’s Office reviewed and approved the contentious rules package, which Big Island residents and fishermen wrestled with for a decade before agreeing to the final version in December, sending it back to his department to forward to the governor.

Aila said he expects to pass the package on to Abercrombie before the governor and his cabinet appear in Kailua-Kona Thursday, at a 6 p.m. event at Kealakehe Intermediate School. The chairman said he has heard a number of rumors and “conspiracy theories” circulating about the rules package, parts of which, including the scuba spearfishing ban, he opposed.

“The process is proceeding as it’s supposed to,” Aila said.

Tina Owens of the LOST FISH Coalition said a deputy attorney general and other DLNR sources contradicted Aila’s comments, saying the rules had not been processed by the Attorney General’s Office yet. The Attorney General’s Office was unable to provide any information on the situation late Friday.

West Hawaii residents who worked on the rules package for the past 10 years said their top concern right now is whether Abercrombie is going to sign the new rules or allow the package to sit in limbo without his approval.

“To disregard all of that work and expertise at the last phase would show a lack of respect for the Hawaii Administrative Rules rule-making process,” said Susan Kellam of Friends of Pebble Beach. “These amendments were studied by marine biologists, the (DLNR’s) Division of Aquatic Resources, they were confirmed by scientists. The idea that there’s not enough scientific evidence is just absurd.”

Further, she said, the rules package represents “deep compromises” on the parts of both reef conservationists and aquarium fish collectors. Those collectors have been voluntarily abstaining from fish collecting in one bay for nearly four years waiting for the rules to be approved, Kellam said.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the rules package, in a 6-2 vote in late June. Aila told West Hawaii Today in early June he wanted to know how many people are scuba spearfishing in West Hawaii, how many fish they’re catching and what percentage of the overall fishing take that is. He said he’s also worried that removing the option of scuba spearfishing will push those fishermen into nearshore waters to do regular spearfishing.

Aila removed that portion of the proposed rule package, but the land board approved the package with the ban.

Several supporters of the rules package said they heard Abercrombie had agreed to a meeting with Oahu fishermen who opposed the ban. Supporters wondered why they were unable to get a face-to-face meeting with Abercrombie on the issue.

Louise Kim McCoy, Abercrombie’s spokeswoman, said no supporters had requested such a meeting. Owens said she did speak with someone about getting a meeting and was told that “wouldn’t happen,” Owens said. When she heard that, she did not submit a formal meeting request.

Supporters also raised questions whether they will even be allowed to ask Abercrombie about the situation during his West Hawaii visit Thursday.

Kim McCoy, in a voice message, did not confirm whether Abercrombie was meeting with opponents of the proposed rule.

Glennon Gingo, president of the West Hawaii Fisheries Council, said Abercrombie’s West Hawaii liaison, Barbara Dalton, talked to the council last month urging caution during the governor’s visit.

“I think her fear is it will turn into a counterproductive meeting,” Gingo said. “I still think people should have the opportunity to bring it up.”

Dalton said the governor’s office isn’t trying to discourage people from raising the subject, despite how people may have interpreted her comments. The meeting is intended to be an event for the community to listen to Cabinet members, she added.

“I’m only hoping everyone behaves courteously and civilly,” Dalton said.

Kellam and Owens said they intend to attend the meeting and will be bringing up their hopes that Abercrombie signs the rules and lets them take effect.

“We are the people of Hawaii, and we are the people who put him in office,” Kellam said.

Owens said she doesn’t want the governor to just pass off questions to Aila.

“If (Aila) talks the governor into (not signing the rules), the governor is going to lose his job,” Owens said. “I really don’t think this is a good political move for him.”

By Erin Miller –
West Hawaii Today – emiller@westhawaiitoday.com