Maui’s Marine Protected Areas

Is Something Fishy Going On?

Louis K. “Buzzy” Agard relates seeing schools of ulua aukea (aka Giant Trevally) around Oʻahu right after World War II in a booklet on “The Importance of Refuges for Fish Replenishment in Hawaiʻi.” During the war, local boaters had been restricted from going out to avoid interfering with the Navy’s hydrophone operations, effectively shutting down fishing across the state. Fish populations bounced back in number and size in the four years between 1941 and 1945. Buzzy goes on to recount how it only took about five years for fishers to gear up and knock the number and size of fish back to prewar levels throughout the Hawaiian Islands.

Alphabet Soup: MMAs in Hawaiʻi

The state of Hawaiʻi started creating marine managed areas (MMAs) in the 1950s. Some were meant to protect species, ecosystems, and even cultural sites. Others were intended to resolve user conflicts. The diversity of intent is reflected in the pile of acronyms used to describe these management areas: MMAs, MPAs, FMAs, CMMAs, MLCDs, NARs, CBSFA, MNM, MNS, and more. 

The two major categories are marine protected areas (MPAs), primarily intended to protect or enhance natural or cultural resources. Fisheries management areas (FMAs) are typically focused on managing user conflicts and may provide benefits similar to MPAs. The types of MMAs range from the extreme of no-take MPAs (most of which often allow other activities like recreational uses) to areas that are targeting a single species, for example specifically enhancing limu (seaweeds) or ʻopihi (limpets) to areas that restrict a type of fishing, like the lay net ban that encircles all of Maui.

Some examples of MMAs are the Kahekili Herbivore Fisheries Management Area, which prohibits the harvesting of several plant-eating fish species and sea urchins. The Honolua-Mokulēʻia Bay Marine Life Conservation District (MLCD) does not allow any fishing or removal of sand, coral, or rocks. The Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve is a complete no-entry zone reaching out two nautical miles from shore.  The Molokini Shoal MLCD does not allow fishing inside the crater (Zone A) but allows trolling outside (Zone B). The Kīpahulu ʻOpihi Rest Area is a community-led effort promoting a voluntary pause in the harvest of intertidal limpets. 

The last example stands out. All other MMAs listed are government managed with rules that are enforceable by law. In contrast, the ʻOpihi Rest Area is a community effort driven by voluntary compliance. The Kīpahulu ʻOhana is further moving towards empowering their community to have a greater voice in managing local resources. They have asked for the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources (DAR) to designate Kīpahulu moku’s nearshore waters as a Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area (CBSFA).  CBSFAs are a relatively new MMA model for Hawaiʻi that is a bottom-up marine management model where communities propose management plans that the state can then approve and put the force of law behind. 

A lot of coral, but where are the fish? Photo by John Starmer

Although MPAs can be created to protect cultural resources, CBSFAs explicitly have a cultural component to  protect “fishing practices customarily and traditionally exercised for purposes of native Hawaiian subsistence, culture, and religion.” Unlike typical MMAs, where the state would come up with a management plan, the Kīpahulu ʻOhana has put years of effort working with the state, NGOs, and community members to develop their own sustainable management plan.

The Kīpahulu ʻOhana is one of a number of groups in Maui county that are seeking to have greater local input over resource management. Since 2013, nine community groups on Maui, Molokai, and Lanaʻi have come together through the Maui Nui Makai Network.  Although each group’s focus differs due to the specifics of their community needs, they are united by the mission to “protect and restore healthy coastal and marine ecosystems for the people of Maui Nui using powerful place-based, collaborative strategies.”  

This collaborative focus on taking care of the marine resources right off your porch starts to approach the traditional forms of marine resource management that were practiced prior to western influence. While state or federally-driven MMA creation will continue, the community-managed makai area (CMMA) model will hopefully become a more common way to create a socially equitable, culturally respectful, and locally supported way to grow more functional MMAs throughout the state.

The omilu, or Bluefin Trevally , is found on coral reefs across the Indo-Pacific region. Courtesy USFWS / Flickr

No-Take MPAs: An Open and Shut Case?

Typically the term MPA is equated with a no-take or no fishing allowed protected area. One frustration of some fishermen is that limitations on the ability to access areas to fish are considered an affront to an assumed right to fish anywhere. Trying to balance this concern has led to attempts at closing and opening FMAs to fishing (rotational closures). The thought was that these “rest periods” would, over time, outpace fishing pressure and improve fishing overall. Unfortunately, research does not show that this model works, at least not when management areas are opened up to all forms of fishing. A study of rotational closures at the Waikiki-Diamond Head FMA showed that resuming fishing consistently resulted in fish quickly getting reduced to preclosure levels. Repeated cycles of this process continued to push overall numbers down even further over time, rather than supporting some level of recovery. What was shown by FMA closures, as with the WWII example, is that fish numbers seem to recover quickly when fishing pressure stops.

A more recent open and close effort on the west coast of Hawaiʻi island is the Kaʻūpūlehu Marine Reserve, which may hold more promise of success. This CMMA was established in 2016 and after just four years, the estimated total weight of fish in the preserve had more than doubled to 256 percent. 

Kaʻūpūlehu is currently under a 10-year rest period of no fishing. The reserve will be opened up to fishing in 2026 and, hopefully, with the guidance of the community-driven Ka‘ūpūlehu Marine Life Advisory Committee’s rules and continued monitoring, fish populations will be able to both provide for the community and continue to add to fish abundance outside of the managed area.  

While the Kaʻūpūlehu community and Maui Nui’s networks of CMMAs understandably wish to access the resources they are managing, there is ever-increasing evidence that areas that are fully closed to fishing are a necessary management tool. The short-term benefit of spillover seen in four years at Kaʻūpūlehu and other areas fully closed to fishing is, really, just an initial benefit to no-take MPAs. 

In many fish species, larger fish produce more fish compared to youngsters. Marine fish are typically focused on survival and grow quickly. At some point, they mature and are able to reproduce, but they are still putting most of their energy into growing to a point where they can hold their own on a reef. This means that smaller fish produce a lot fewer eggs than older and larger fish. 

It takes about 86 13-inch omilu (bluefin trevally) to produce as many eggs as a single 26-inch omilu. Other species of fish, such as snappers, have a similar reproductive output related to size. While a regulatory way to address this issue with fishing regulation slot limits—minimum and maximum permitted sizes on certain sizes—Hawaiʻi’s fishing regulations only have minimum sizes. This is a case where permanent no-take MPAs have the potential to protect older fish that will, inch for inch and pound for pound, produce far more fish that will be catchable outside the MPA.

Another challenge is that some fish get harvested before they even have a chance to reproduce. ʻUʻu (menpachi, squirrelfish) have to be 6.5 inches to reproduce. They do not reach that size until they are six years old and there are no size or catch limits on these fish. Manini (convict tang) reach maturity at 6.5 inches but are legal at 5 inches. Omilu first reproduce at 14 inches and ulua aukea first reproduce at 24 inches. In Hawai’i, legal size for ulua and papio is 10 inches, so it is legal to catch and keep these fish before they have a chance to reproduce. MPAs have the potential to shelter fish to allow them to grow to maturity, reproduce, and, again, eventually spill over to areas outside of the MPAs. 

Sustainable fishing is a staple of Native Hawaiian culture. Courtesy Pixabay

While spillover has been well documented for coastal MPAs, the massive and oceanic Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument which was created in 2008 and expanded in 2016, was recently shown to be producing a similar spillover effect. Catch rates of pelagic fish such as yellowfin (54 percent catch increase), bigeye tuna (12 percent increase) and an overall eight percent increase for all pelagic species caught that included fish like mahimahi and marlin. This example is remarkable as it is the first time that an extremely large MPA, protecting fish that have an extremely large range, like tuna, could produce benefits previously only seen with much smaller management areas and fish with much smaller ranges. 

While fishermen will push back against proposals to create new no-take MPAs, all evidence points to these MMAs being an important and necessary tool for improving fishing in Hawaiʻi. These MPAs, when appropriately situated, produce improved fishing through spillover along nearby coastlines and further enhance habitat resilience in the face of climate change and other stressors. Hopefully, CMMAs will also become a more common type of MMA as they not only help improve local fisheries, they help communities connect to each other, their history, and the land.

John Starmer