Hawaii Is the First State to Ban Shark Fishing

Photo shows a whitetip shark with a school of fish in the background. Hawaii just became the first U.S. state to ban shark fishing.

Hawaii just became the first U.S. state to ban shark fishing.

As of January 1, 2022, it is a misdemeanor “to knowingly capture, entangle, or kill any species of shark in State marine waters.” Rulebreakers face increasingly heavy fines for each offense—$500 for the first, $2,000 for the second, and $10,000 for all subsequent offences. Additional penalties include the seizure of vessels, equipment, and licenses.

Act 51, also known as House Bill 533, passed in the last legislative session of 2021 after being introduced earlier in the year by Governor David Ige. The initial announcement took place on World Oceans Day, when Ige noted that Hawaii faces “unprecedented” challenges related to climate change, from reef bleaching to reduced marine biodiversity.

Hawaii’s shark fishing ban

Sharks are incredibly important for the overall health of their environment. They perform a variety of ecosystem services, from balancing the food chain to absorbing carbon.

According to IUCN, over 30 percent of the 470 shark species are endangered, vulnerable, or threatened to some extent. Some are hunted intentionally, but many of the smaller species fall victim to bycatch and ghost fishing—this is when they are caught by accident or trapped in discarded fishing gear and other marine plastic pollution.

A release from Governor David Ige’s office notes that more work is still needed and that additional rules may be deployed to further prevent the “wanton waste of sharks,” perhaps by limiting the use of all fishing gear in identified shark nursery habitats. Those fishing for other species are advised, overall, to avoid areas with known shark populations and to use barbless circle hooks, which will cause less damage to sharks captured by chance.

Up to eight percent of the global shark population is killed every year, and it has taken just five decades for humans to wipe out 70 percent of all sharks and rays—species that had previously survived for hundreds of millions of years and multiple mass extinction events.

The importance of sharks in Hawaii

Hawaii alone is home to around 40 different species of shark, including whale, hammerhead, and tiger varieties. Sharks are incredibly important to Hawaii’s aquatic ecosystems, but they are also a prominent part of the islands’ culture.

The word “aumakua” refers to a benevolent spirit or guardian, a deified ancestors’ spirit in organic form. While aumakua can also manifest as plants, trees, rocks, or other wildlife, the shark is one of the most common. (Eagle-eyed Jason Momoa fans may recognize this concept from his iconic arm tattoos, which feature his family’s aumakua, a shark.)

“We are well aware of how important sharks are to maintain healthy marine ecosystems,” said Brian Neilson, Administrator of the Division of Aquatic Resources, which is part of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). “We also recognize their importance in native Hawaiian cultural practices and beliefs.”

With this in mind, the law does not apply to those with special activity permits issued by the DLNR, which “shall include native Hawaiian cultural protocol, size and species restrictions, and a prohibition on species listed as endangered or threatened.”

Shark fishing for public safety, self-defense, the defense of another, or outside of state marine waters—providing required documentation is available—remains legal.

Could a federal ban on shark fishing be next?

House Bill 533 follows a ban on the sale, trade, distribution, and possession of shark fins in Hawaii over a decade ago. Today, fourteen states and three U.S. territories restrict the sale and possession of shark fins, both for environmental and animal cruelty reasons.

There has been proposed federal legislation since around 2019. Last year, the U.S. Senate passed the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act (SFSEA), bringing a nationwide ban even closer.

“The strong, bipartisan support for this legislation sends a clear message that we have to pay more attention to protecting the Earth’s oceans and the life within those oceans,” said Representative Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan (I-Mariana Islands), who introduced the bill.

Last year, the UK announced that it hoped to become the first nation to completely ban the shark fin trade, including all import, export, trade, and possession of fins or related products.