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Seals, Boaters Threaten Niihau's Livelihood

The main food supply for residents of the privately owned Hawaiian island is under siege. They seek government help.

June 01, 2003|Bruce Dunford | Associated Press Writer

HONOLULU — An explosion in the Hawaiian monk seal population has created a problem for the 180 native Hawaiians who live off the land and sea on the privately owned island of Niihau.

The estimated 100 endangered monk seals, combined with a growing number of off-island boaters coming in to harvest the rock-hugging mollusk opihi off the coast and fish near shore waters, has threatened the traditional and main food supply for the islanders.

Niihau residents took their concerns to Gov. Linda Lingle last month as she made her first trip to the isolated outpost of Hawaiian culture.

"It's a very serious issue, so they asked me if I could look into it," Lingle said.

Kauai's Robinson family has owned Niihau, home to the last all-Hawaiian community, since 1864, when Elizabeth Sinclair bought the island from the Hawaiian monarchy and moved her family there from New Zealand.

Lingle said she will ask the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to see what may be done to regulate the fishermen, but resolving the monk seal problem could be more difficult.

"The people who live there ... have a subsistence lifestyle and so they can't run down to the supermarket when they want dinner. They go fishing," she said.

Lingle said the number of boaters coming in to fish around Niihau has expanded dramatically.

"One lady told a story of last weekend when she and her father were out in a certain part of the island and there were some people not from Niihau and they took out 90 gallons of opihi," Lingle said. "And they didn't know how to stop them or what to say."

In another case, islanders were notified of a big school of akule offshore, but before they could get there, outsiders had come in to net the fish.

One possibility would be to declare the waters around Niihau as a preserve with fishing regulated, she said.

With encouragement by the Robinson family, the monk seal population has grown and "they also take a lot of fish," Lingle said.

The governor said she was impressed by her first visit to the dry, kiawe-covered island, which has only dirt roads and 10 vehicles, including a World War II-vintage former military vehicle that was used to transport her and her party.

"Everything was very modest. All the yards were immaculate. The houses were simple," she said. "Everything was clean."

"We saw the sharks come in and breed in two of the bays there," she said. "There were a lot of sharks."

Lingle's trip to Niihau by way of helicopter came as part of her visit to the Navy's Pacific Missile Range at Barking Sands in west Kauai.

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