Protecting the Wild Bonefish of Hawaii

Written by: Capt. Terry Duffield, a. k. a. Coach Duff

Market Bonefish

Imagine what a bonefish is worth to the sport-fishing and tourist industries, and then check out the price in the market: a paltry $2.99 per pound.

photo courtesy Terry Duffield

Aloha Orvis Nation,

As many of you know, we have monster bonefish here in Hawaii. I’ve worked for years to get respectability bestowed by us in the fly-fishing world, and thanks to great anglers like yourselves, we’ve made it! People are becoming more and more aware of our giant bonefish and our extensive flats that surround the eastern, southern, and northern sides of Oahu. Our state record is 18.4 pounds (landed on bait in 1954), and it stood as the world record for 25 years.

This species of bonefish—there are now 12 recognized species, according to Dr. Aaron Adams at Bonefish & Tarpon Trust—is found from Hawaii to South Africa, as you move along the Indian Coast and down the eastern side of the African continent. We also have inner reef flats on Molkai (where Capt. Clay Ching is opening things up), Kauai (where Rob Arita has guided for many years), and Lanai.

Bonefish are called o’io in Hawaii and for eons have been a food source for the inhabitants of Hawaii. I am attempting to lead a charge to get the o’io listed as a game fish in Hawaii. This would be the first time a fish has had said listing, and it would make it impossible to sell o’io anywhere in Hawaii. (Check out the picture above, of an o’io being sold in a market on Oahu for a paltry 5 bucks.) This would help stop the netting of the fish for profit.

As Josh Owens pointed out on Coach Duff’s Facebook page, “There is a huge difference between sustainable cultural fishing and netting an entire flat.”

photo courtesy Josh Owens

Now, I know that most fly anglers immediately fall back on “catch-and-release” when it comes to regulations, but we don’t think that will go anywhere here. First off, catch-and-release is a management tool, not a higher consciousness, as many fly anglers mistakenly believe. We think that the Hawaiian people should still be able to observe local tradition and customs as they have for centuries, but we believe that the o’io should have slot limits and only be harvestable if caught with rod and reel.

Remember, this is a beautiful culture, but it is a culture that had its language stolen, its Hula outlawed, its people decimated by disease, and its monarchy overthrown by questionable methods. We love and respect our elders here and believe they have a right to continue their traditions. Our inshore illegal netting has declined due to the great efforts of our Oahu guides and our outstanding DLNR agents, who work tirelessly to stop poaching. But as long as you can sell o’io in bulk, there will be gill-netting. This, coupled with a crystal meth problem (most illegal netters have drug issues), makes an already somewhat fragile population vulnerable.

We are in the beginning stages, but I am reaching out to this great and experienced core of Orvis guides and anglers to help us in this journey. You can reach me through my website anytime with ideas and support. Remember to donate freely to the great Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and when you want a shot at an absolute pig of a bonefish, dust off the Helios and come visit for a spell. The Mai Tais are good and strong. Aloha and A HUI HO!

Coach Duff

Coach Duff shows off a monster Hawaiian bonefish, or o’io.

photo courtesy Terry Duffield

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