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  • By Tim Rock

Making the case for a scuba fishing ban

Ok, so here we go again. We get a new crop of legislators and lots of new ideas. And one of the ideas is to actually do something to protect the ocean that surrounds Guam. Something all of our island neighbors seem to proudly try to do, but not Guam. Palau set aside its first marine preserve in the 1950s. It banned scuba spearfishing in 1994. It announced last year to the world in a United Nations speech that it was banning commercial fishing, thus creating the world’s largest marine preserve. Guam is still in the dark ages, allowing divers to kill sleeping fish at night in the dark as they sleep. And this is with no regard to size, species or count. Guam is open season 24-7.

scuba fshing

The latest bill to try to benefit the reef is one from freshman legislator Sen. Sabina Perez that would ban fishing while using scuba diving apparatus. Bill 53-35 states that the Department of Agriculture’s Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources way back in 2009 noted the dwindling numbers of fish. The agency recognized scuba fishing as a “serious threat to all reef fish stocks” the bill states. Sen. Clynton Ridgell and Speaker Tina Muna Barnes are co-sponsors.

“These results suggest that scuba fishing impacts reef fish populations and that the restriction of this fishing method will ensure refuge for fish populations in deeper waters,” the bill notes.

Ok, this isn’t the first time such a bill was introduced. Back in 2010, Sen. B.J. Cruz also tried to get scuba fishing banned. He was not successful despite a lot of testimony including that stated by Sen. Perez above.

Now when some form of conservation measure makes the news, as this one is doing, a certain scenario with the usual suspects plays out. The members of the news media announce the initiative or bill. Then they let the dust briefly settle and then go over to the

Guam Fishermen's Coop

Fisherman’s Co-op in Hagatna to get a quote from Manny Duenas, who immediately opposes it. If it is pro conservation and pro environment, the co-op opposes it, with no need to read it. They oppose any restriction, beneficial or not, to their access to fish. Then Manny gets his cast of characters involved, normally with John S. Calvo, Guam coordinator from 2002 to 2017 for the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, stating numerous facts, assumptions, insults and opinions as to why the proposed law is rubbish.

Then proponents—usually a handful of high school biology teachers and their students, a few conservationists and even some fishermen—say it is what Guam needs. Then Duenas rallies co-op fishermen who tell tales of woe and persecution that have already happened from the sprinkling of conservation laws that Guam has managed to pass in the past few decades, with the successful marine preserves usually getting the brunt of the verbal abuse. He gets vocal and calls the process Draconian. The senators, afraid of being labeled anti-fisherman, akin to being anti-culture, cave and the bill goes into the trash. The reefs continue to get pillaged without regulation. The extractionists have won again and life goes on for Guam because while we say we love our seas and resources the real attitude is “Meh”!!

Actually, this bill seems like a no-brainer. Nearly all tropical countries (e.g., Philippines, Okinawa, New Caledonia, Galapagos, Palau, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, Kosrae, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Northern Marianas, French Polynesia, Queensland Australia (Great Barrier Reef), Tahiti and the rest of the Society Islands, Vanuatu, Marquesas, Tuamotus, Gambier Islands, Austral Islands, Seychelles, Cocos Keeling, Mexico, Bahamas, Bermuda, Belize, Curaçao, Bonaire and most others) have banned the use of spearfishing with scuba because viable fisheries cannot be maintained if the removal of the breeding stock of larger fishes becomes too thorough. Spearfishing with free-diving (mask, snorkel and fins) is an honorable sport and a viable, regulated fishery can be maintained, but the added technology of scuba allows the fishers to be very effective in targeting sleeping parrotfish at night and can be selective in targeting the larger fishes, which are the important breeders.

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The late Dr. Robert Johannes spent much of his career learning the wisdom of the elder fishermen in Micronesia in resource management. He pointed out that the wise elders could see through the complex interactions and unpredictable recruitment patterns in assessing the state of their fisheries resources with straightforward observations as to whether the big ones were still there. Although there is still a great diversity and large numbers of colorful aquarium fishes on our reefs, the large fishes are scarce. And this is a big deal. Big fish lay more eggs… WAY MORE eggs, millions upon millions, than a medium-sized fish of the same species. But Guam has no cultural or civil laws regulating size and catch. So the breeders are gone, gone, long gone.

Guam’s Marine Lab has a giant clam shell on display in its courtyard area. Now, giant clams have been extinct on Guam since before the first contact with the Spanish. But I seriously doubt this went unnoticed by ancient Chamorros. Every culture in the Pacific has a system for managing reef resources traditionally. I was once stranded for two months on Ontong Java atoll in the far reaches of the Solomons. Even in that remote setting, there were reefs where it was understood clams could not be taken and large amounts of fish to be taken only outside the reef with a spear. And those fish were shared with all of the small atoll residents. Nothing was wasted.

Guam ‘s early residents likely had taboos and limits and no fishing zones. The complex collection of fishing hooks that Chamorros used shows what great knowledge they had of the sea and of marine life. How that knowledge got lost is anyone’s guess. Since the population was almost decimated by diseases brought by Europeans, it is easy to see how that could have been lost. But it is highly doubtful Guam’s reefs weren’t managed in ancient times. Just as Palau has its bul (traditional laws regulating fishing), Guam most surely had a similar taboo system.

The last few years have not been kind to Guam. El Ninos, warming incidents and starfish infestations have wreaked havoc on Guam’s reefs. Crown-of-thorns attacks have devastated corals on the east and north. The warm waters have caused acroporas (like staghorn and table corals) to get sick and die. Some species have disappeared completely in the CNMI and are threatened here. This major loss of habitat due to natural conditions is frightening enough. But scuba fishing is not something brought upon the reefs by nature. Guam has done this to itself and the fact that nature is being destructive just magnifies the SCUBA spearing problem.

parrot fish

You take a substantial portion of large fish like parrotfishes only at the expense of serious detrimental effects to the coral-reef ecosystem. Larger parrotfishes actually scrape the substratum when removing seaweed, thereby keeping seaweed under control and facilitating coral growth for healthy systems while producing sand when they eat and digest coral. The smaller parrotfishes are relatively ineffective and very recent studies show that is exactly what Guam has. Some parrotfish are gone, others are getting smaller. Like the reefs, Guam’s fish population is changing and not for the better.

The co-op and its WESPAC reps for decades have categorically fought anything that even hints at regulation, even though #5 of its guiding principles states: “Promote Environmentally Responsible fishing and the utilization of sustainable fisheries that provide long term economic growth and stability.” That really doesn’t seem to jive with any and all studies about scuba fishing. Yet, scuba fishing still gets Co-op and WESPAC support.

While the good ol’ boys of the Co-op have had their way in the past, there are younger, educated voices now being heard. Activist Ned Pablo from Anigua would like to ban the sale of locally caught fresh reef fish commercially until our fish populations regenerate in about five years. Then implement seasonal catches afterwards. Get relevant government agencies to start doing more aggressive enforcement, mitigation, coastal and inland restoration so that leaching, soil degradation, runoff, sedimentation and contamination are minimized.

black coral

Derek Hendricks says, “I speared my first fish 33 years ago. I am still an active spearo. Scuba spearfishing is SHOP-LIFTING! It's only done by a select few for profit and they rape the reef, taking out entire schools of fish. You'll never see them post a video or brag about their catch because it's embarrassing in the fishing community. I did it once (scuba spearing) over 20 years ago and the bad taste is still in my mouth. It's ridiculous and should be banned.

Ron Laguana II is an avid and skilled spearfisher who tried through Sen. Cruz to get scuba spearing banned in 2010. He says the issue on the table here is the destructive method of harvest that can wipe out an entire species of herbivores that plays a vital role in maintaining the algae that grows over our corals. Autuhong, tangison, lagua... these species are of high demand and harvested while asleep at night. “As a peskadot,” says Laguana, “I see it firsthand and this proposal needs to be done. Majority of fish caught using scuba is sold commercially!”

In many places, WESPAC has actually been effective in managing resources. But not in Guam and Hawaii. Tired of dealing with WESPAC, the citizens of the Kona coast established the West Hawaii Fisheries Council which consisted of fishermen, tourism operators and a variety of residents. They proposed the West Hawaii HAR amendment that included the scuba spearfishing ban. WESPAC didn’t directly weigh in on this but what it did do was work behind the scenes encouraging/organizing opposition to the amendment. It even picked up the airfare for Oahu opponents so they could fly over to Kona and testify against the rule. WESPAC was definitely NOT supportive. So, while WESPAC didn’t directly testify in Kona, the experience shows a very few commercial fishermen can outweigh a vast majority of citizens. 90 percent of the citizens of the state favored separating spearfishing from scuba. In the end, only the Kona Coast of the Big Island has the law, but not the rest of the main islands of Hawaii.

There was an abundance of large fishes immediately following World War II. But this was the time that scuba arrived and the large ones have substantially decreased since fishers have been given the power of high tech scuba for nearly seven decades. It does not take rocket science to realize that we must ban the use of scuba with spearfishing or nothing will be left. Pretty much nothing is left now.

But former WESPAC man John S. Calvo hasn’t given up on support of this fishing. He writes in a piece published in Guam newspapers: “According to the bill, the idea proposed by Bill 53 has been adopted in 63 nations and jurisdictions, including the CNMI and most Pacific island nations. The only science being practiced here is global political science and Perez is Guam's Ocasio-Cortez. The lights are on but no one is home.”

The fact is, it may be time for the unregulated, extraction-only co-op dinosaurs to head to the boneyard. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is right and so is Senator Perez – it's time for radical change, not more ‘meh’ politics. The status quo has changed. Consider that Ocasio-Cortez’s “unrealistic” Green New Deal has sparked a meaningful discussion about climate change in U.S. politics, for example. So let’s stop worshipping the “meh,” shall we? Let’s quit letting Palau take the lead in this region when it comes to our ocean. Let’s show we can be leaders and stewards. Now more than ever Guam’s reefs need radical change.


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