Ban on scuba fishing proposed

EROSION: Heavy rain left behind by Supertyphoon Wutip discharges muddy sediment from the river into Pago Bay on Monday. Manny Duenas, a local fisherman and president of the Guam Fishermen's Cooperative Association, says the larger problem is erosion killing the reef, which is home to the reef fish that have sustained the local island community for generations. Dontana Keraskes/The Guam Daily Post

A new proposed law aims to protect Guam’s reefs and declining fish population by banning scuba fishing in Guam’s waters.

Sen. Sabina Perez introduced Bill 53-35, which states that the Department of Agriculture Division of Aquatic and Wildlife Resources in 2009 noted that reef fish are “declining at an alarming rate.” The agency noted that scuba fishing is a “serious threat to all reef fish stocks."

Bill 53, co-sponsored by Sen. Clynton Ridgell and Speaker Tina Muña Barnes, aims to remove that threat.

If passed, the legislation would make scuba fishing a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, or a fine between $1,000 and $5,000, or a combination of prison and a fine.

The response on social media has largely been supportive. People have been commenting on The Guam Daily Post Facebook page that the bill should have been introduced years ago.

But not everyone believes a ban on scuba fishing will restore the fish population.

“I know free divers who can catch more fish than five scuba divers put together in a day,” said Manny Duenas, president of the Guam Fishermen's Cooperative Association. He said the co-op's general stance over the years has been against legislation that adds more restrictions against local fishermen.

He urged senators to turn their eyes to the larger problem of erosion, which he said is smothering the reefs.

No more restrictions

Duenas said the number of local fishermen has “dwindled over the years,” so the idea that they are to blame is inaccurate. As a decades-long fisherman and president of the Fishermen's Co-op, he said he has seen firsthand what is killing the reef and chasing away the fish that rely on it.

“We need to look at the data, at the science,” Duenas said, adding that the data he has collected over the years show there hasn’t been much change in the amount or size of fish.

“And that tells me that the marine preserves – (which) was a restriction to our local fishermen ... that was sold to us as a way to help preserve the (fish) population – isn’t working,” he said. He added the preserves were supposed to be the first step to helping improve the fish population. Programs to control erosion were promised, too. Instead, he said, projects that caused the removal of mangrove forests have been allowed.

“At the end of the day, we’re polluting ourselves and our environment to death,” he said.

He said mangroves habitats, generally found near river heads and coastlines where fresh water meets the ocean, help keep too much freshwater and sediment from running into the ocean. Mangrove roots trap and hold unstable soil and are a habitat to filter feeders that clean water of sediment and nutrients which could cause algae blooms, according to the National Park Service.

“When I was a kid growing up – my family is from the south – the sedimentation from the river used to settle at the mouth of the river ... but now it goes out much further. Just like at Pago Bay, you can see it,” he said. “When you change the dynamics of the (ocean) water, adding too much fresh water or sediment ... that causes the algae blooms (and) impacts the habitat where our fish are at.”

He said he appreciates senators' efforts to help but said they need to focus on the environmental issues, “not on adding restrictions to local fishermen. ... Pretty soon 'Tan Maria' won’t be able to get fish because of these restrictions on our local fishermen.”  

Banning scuba

According to a press release from Perez’s office, local fishermen and youth groups support the scuba fishing ban.

“Many fishermen are seeing firsthand the impacts scuba fishing are having on their catch. These responsible fishermen are frustrated that our laws fail to regulate a damaging, unsustainable practice that threatens their livelihoods,” Perez said.

According to the bill, the idea proposed by Bill 53 has been adopted in 63 nations and jurisdictions, including the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands and most Pacific island nations.

The bill defines scuba diving as using a self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, but notes that other equipment that use compressed air or a “mixture of air and gas (such as) nitrox, and surface-supplied air and rebreathers” will be included in the ban.

Declining population

According to a press release from Perez’s office, studies show scuba fishing allows for the targeting of reef fish at greater depths, and at greater efficiency, than traditional fishing methods. This practice prevents struggling fish stocks from regenerating, which are essential to the health of coral reef ecosystems, the release stated. In extreme cases, scuba fishing could contribute to fisheries collapse, it added.

In a recent study of 832 coral reefs in 64 localities, two stood out for having fish biomass low enough to constitute fisheries collapse: Papua New Guinea and Guam.

“We must act now if we hope to save our fisheries from collapse, which would have negative repercussions to our coral reefs,” said Perez.

Two species, once prevalent in Guam’s waters, are particularly vulnerable to scuba fishing: atuhong, or humphead parrotfish; and tanguisson, or humphead wrasse, the press release stated. Both fish require the ability to grow large in deep waters before returning and repopulating reefs. However, with the advent of scuba fishing, the largest of these fish are now being targeted in deep waters with startling efficiency, the release stated. Data compiled by the Guam Department of Agriculture show that all recorded catches of atuhong and 85 percent of all recorded catches of tanguisson were caught by scuba fishing.

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