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(c) Deron Verbeck


By Molly Scott, June 27, 2024

This issue we caught up with Geoff Walker, a long-time Kona-based fisherman who has spent his whole life working on the ocean- from Alaska and Washington State to San Diego to Hawaii with a stint on a Destroyer ship in the US Navy during Vietnam. Geoff is the OG fisher that was pivotal in developing the Hawaii Community Tagging Program (HCTP). Geoff originally contacted Melanie through a mutual fisher-science friend because he was catching a lot of bigeye thresher sharks off Kona and wanted to know more about them. Melanie was keen to tag bigeye thresher sharks because they are a very understudied species so acquired some funding, tags and started ika-shibi fishing with Geoff. During long, overnight trips off the west Hawaii coast, only two bigeye threshers were  tagged but they encountered plenty of other pelagic sharks including oceanic whitetips, blues, shortfin makos and silky sharks. They also had a lot of time to talk-story,  discuss shark biology, ecosystem impacts of shark bycatch, the fishing industry, fisher perspectives and attitudes towards sharks.

Around the same time, oceanic whitetips were just listed under the US Endangered Species Act (2018) due to declines in population and overfishing throughout their range. This determination was made partly due to major gaps in basic biological and ecological information, especially for the population around Hawaii. Melanie saw this as an awesome opportunity for scientists to work with local fishers around Hawaii, who have high interaction rates with oceanic whitetips. The aim was to help gather important data about interactions, movement patterns and habitat preferences and to work with fishers to develop non-lethal strategies for depredation mitigation.

On sharks and fishers co-existing, Geoff says that fishers ‘got to do what you got to do to eat’. A few years ago, if sharks were bothering Geoff and his crew, it was fairly common practice for them to catch and shoot sharks before starting to fish. However, in 2018 a group of Hawaiian cultural practitioners approached Geoff to escort their 40’ Koa wood canoe around the islands and carry their supplies and relief paddlers. They went ashore at night and camped at culturally significant sites while Geoff fished. They asked him not to kill the sharks he interacted with as they were considered sacred and an aumakua. He also noticed that some sharks, possibly the aumakua ones, were difficult to get to bite bait if it had a hook with wire leader. Since this trip, Geoff has not killed sharks. Instead he chucks some palu or bait bits in the water to feed the sharks before fishing and sometimes will put a jug on a shark to deter it from an area. Geoff acknowledges sharks are an essential part of the ocean ecosystem and we have to co-exist. Avoidance is best for both fishers and sharks, but it's tricky! 

Geoff loves the HCTP because education and knowledge sharing between scientists and fishers is important for both parties to understand the conflict and to come up with solutions, especially for methods of deterrents. He thinks the relationship helped the scientists understand the fishers perspective and translate that to managers and helped the fishers come to respect sharks and see them as more than a nuisance. “For humans, we are only on this planet for 80 – 90 years on average. Sharks have been around for 400 million years, we humans think we know everything, but we don’t.” Geoff says learning more about shark movement patterns and habitat preferences through the HCTP has opened his eyes to the life of sharks. He is always amazed by how far they travel and how a lot of them tagged around the Big Island seem to come back. For example, Geoff was really surprised when one of the bigeye threshers that was tagged, went over 2000 kms into the high seas only to return to the Hilo-side of the Big Island.

Geoff remembers a time when the ahi schools stretched from South Point to Maui, but believes increased commercial fishing pressure from longliners and purse seiners south of Hawaii is the cause of steep declines in ahi around Hawaii and its harder for local fishers to compete. Especially, because he believes that shark numbers around Big Island seem to be increasing and wonders if they know or remember that there are easy meals to be had.Geoff’s favorite method of fishing is ika-shibi because you get to learn so much about the marine environment drifting out there at night. He always carries a scoop net on his boat to investigate what interesting little creatures are out there.

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