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COLUMN ONE : Hawaii in the Jaws of a Dilemma : Oahu surfers say deadly sharks lurk beneath the waves, but state officials say it's just a wave of hysteria. Some residents want the sharks left alone, but no one wants tourists to go away.

August 03, 1993|PETE THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONOLULU — Not far off the coast of Waikiki, where thousands would splash in the surf the next day, a series of meat hooks baited with freshly killed tuna dangled beneath the night sea.

Hawaii had reluctantly embarked on another shark hunt, hoping to catch nothing and put an end to persistent claims--mostly from surfers--that tiger sharks had become a menace off the heavily populated south shore of Oahu.

The state had conducted similar hunts after attacks on surfers last winter and earlier this summer off the sparsely populated north and west shores. In each of those, a specially commissioned task force had caught the sharks it considered responsible for the attacks.

This time officials, prompted by what they said was an unusual number of reported sightings on the south shore, had hoped to prove the safety of the water off Waikiki, an area with no history of problems but one visited by 4 million tourists each year.

The overnight hunt in late June turned up only a small sandbar shark, a species not considered particularly dangerous. Relieved officials declared the situation resolved.

But the controversy lingers. An increasing number of surfers claim the government is downplaying a serious problem to preserve its vital tourist industry. State and federal officials say the surfers are overreacting. Other residents--including some surfers--say surfers have always faced the risk of attack, and sharks should be left alone because the ocean is their domain, not man's.

The tiger shark, meanwhile, has become the target of vigilantes who have taken it upon themselves to remove as many as they can. The state's policy is to hunt sharks only after attacks.

"Quite frankly, I think it is hysteria," says Stanley Hong, 55, president of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau. "Even though there have been some sharks, small ones, sighted close in to Waikiki. . . . Essentially, people sometimes forget that the ocean happens to be a habitat of things that swim."

Marine biologists say there is no way to determine the number of sharks in Hawaiian waters but say there are probably more than before the state's last shark control program in 1976.

Among the region's 40 or so species, eight live near shore and among those only the tiger shark--which can grow to 20 feet or more--is considered extremely dangerous.

The state has removed fewer than 20 large tiger sharks since the first attack of 1992. Free-lance hunters are believed to have taken at least another 30.

"You have more and more people in the water and a huge shark population growing at geometric proportions," said James Jones, 40, a Honolulu resident who became well-known in the early 1970s for his big-wave riding. "We know there are more sharks, more people and more attacks--the facts are indisputable. As far as I'm concerned, to hell with the visitor industry. I don't think that all the sharks in the ocean are worth one human life."

Since the first documented attack in Hawaii in 1779, there have been an average of two or three a year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Most have occurred off Oahu and involve surfers and bodyboarders, who often paddle out hundreds of yards.

Surfers are quick to note that last year there were four confirmed attacks--one of them fatal--and a probable attack on a bodyboarder who disappeared and was presumed dead.

In the first attack, Bryan Adona, 29, of Ewa disappeared in February, 1992, while bodyboarding near Waimea Bay on the north shore of Oahu. His board washed ashore the next morning with teeth marks made by what was believed to be a large tiger shark.

A month later, a surfer on the neighboring island of Kauai suffered a small foot wound when a shark bit her surfboard.

These incidents passed without much commotion. But when north swells started breaking over the outer reefs last autumn, marking the beginning of another surfing season on Oahu's north shore, a series of attacks brought tiger sharks back into the spotlight.

In the worst case, Aaron Romento, 18, of Pearl City was bodyboarding off the west side of Oahu on Nov. 5 when he was severely bitten on the right leg by a tiger shark only 30 yards from shore. He died a short time later of loss of blood.

Two other cases, both on the north shore, involved surfers who had crescent-shaped chunks bitten from their boards while they were lying on them. Both suffered only scrapes.

The attacks put Hawaii under pressure from both surfers who wanted hunts and residents who didn't. But the state got a reprieve as winter turned to spring with no further incidents.

However, when winter storms in the Southern Hemisphere generated swells that reached the south shore in early June, another season began. And it didn't take long for the shark issue to surface, more volatile than ever.

On June 10, Jon Mozo, 22, of Laie was surfing off the northeast shore. A tiger shark grabbed him by both feet as he was lying on his board.

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