Two Oahu boaters say they pulled out an unattended lay net that they measured at 500 yards long from a restricted area in Kaneohe Bay last week.
The discovery sparked an investigation by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which regulates net fishing.
In 2007, the department adopted rules restricting use of gill nets for lay fishing — a form of fishing where a gill net is left floating on the water while it traps fish. The gill nets allow the fish heads to pass through its holes but then snares the gills as the fish try to escape by swimming backwards.
Gill nets used in the lay method cannot be longer than 125 feet and the holes in the net cannot be less than 2 3/4 inches at stretch measure. The net must also be checked every two hours, but can only be in the water for up to four hours, according to the Hawaii Administrative Rules.
The same rules also restrict the areas where the nets can be used: it is illegal to use lay nets within three miles of the shoreline and in certain parts of Oahu — such as portions of Kaneohe Bay. Maui has banned the fishing method completely.
The two boaters — who asked their names not be used for fear of retaliation — said after they pulled the net out of the bay, the apparent owners of the net chased them to get back their equipment. The boaters made it back to the harbor, but their pursuers fled.
An official with the Department of Land and Natural Resources says while it hasn’t been able to measure the net, it took a forklift to move it.
Jason Redulla, DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement chief, explained that the lay method is the most regulated form of gill net fishing.
“It's because we do have situations where nets are abandoned, or they're laid out for an extensive period of time, and we cannot locate the owners. We can't really hold people responsible without knowing who they are,” he said.
The boaters say their craft got tangled in the net, and that’s why they pulled it out.
DLNR’s Redulla advises residents to report any suspected illegal lay nets by calling his department.
"We really don't encourage the public to remove nets from the water just because one it's other people's property," he said. "And we don't want to get into a situation where it could look like a theft situation nor would we want anybody to get hurt when they're removing the net."
If wildlife caught in the nets are threatened or endangered, it can bring a fine of up to $5,000 for a first offense. In addition, a fine of up to $5,000 can be added for each threatened or endangered wildlife taken, harmed or killed.
In all other situations, a first offense fine for illegal lay net fishing can cost up to $1,000 with an additional fine of up to $1,000 for every animal taken, killed or injured.
Alan Friedlander, director of the University of Hawaii’s Fisheries and Ecology Research Laboratory, said the the state's lay net restrictions have helped replenish a few species.
“Some research we've done in Kailua Bay and some other places on the Windward Coast over the last couple of decades seems to point to the fact that oio and moi may have been rebounding in some places where lay gill nets have been banned,” he said. “That's the good news. The bad news is that there is still a fair amount of gill netting that's going on.”
Both Redulla and Friedlander said lay nets threaten the environment because they indiscriminately catch wildlife, including sea turtles, and also damage coral.
Friedlander would like to see more than just the enforcement of the law.
“It’s really hard to say banning gill nets would be the solution to all of our problems. It helped to effectively manage the resources into the future, but it’s not the only solution,” he said.
“We need to have more effective fisheries management, more marine protected areas, more community based areas. Collective management of all the resources requires a lot of different things.”