(c) Deron Verbeck
By Jennifer Stahl, June 23, 2023
© Tom Boyd
We finally sat down to talk story with one of our first fishers,“Lama” William Gaspar, on all things about sharks and fishing. Lama is a waterman with fishing in his blood as a 4th generation Hawaiian fisherman from a traditional fishing village in Kealakekua Bay, near the Captain Cook Monument on the Big Island. His nickname, Lama, came from his great grandmother who called him Willama or Willy Lama, likely derived from Uilama, the Hawaiian translation for William. Lama is very connected to his Hawaiian ancestry and we were honored that Lama shared stories and photos of his family, the Leslies with us. The Leslie family commercially fished out of the bay and sold and shipped fish around the island with one of the oldest “reefers”, fish markets, in Hawaii located on a pier in the bay. He recalls that they would drive to Hilo for big blocks of ice which they would bring back to the bay and crush, then a small boat would transport ice to the larger boats. But the “reefer” was wiped out after a tsunami and was not rebuilt. However, his family continued to fish commercially in the area and would have buyers take all their fish to Oahu to sell. His family was also one of the few to harvest big schools of akule (bigeye scad) in the bay, which he helped process a few times.
© Deron Verbeck
As a kid, if he wasn’t helping with the family trade he was shore fishing, and by highschool Lama knew all the fishing holes for a variety of species. All he needed was a fishing pole to bring home dinner, as he could find his own bait by catching crab or pulling opihi off the rocks. At age 13 he went on his first deep-sea fishing trip for two weeks out to cross seamount. Eventually he found his way back to offshore fishing and made it his livelihood. But first he started fishing by selling menpachi (soldierfish) after a friend suggested the idea. He taught his friend how to catch them, but he quickly realized that two guys with fishing poles could quickly cause localized depletion, as even small, 3-inch menpachi were marketable. He knew this type of fishing is unsustainable if the population of fish are unable to reach maturity to reproduce. So Lama turned to fishing ahi instead, which he thinks will not have a large impact if fishers follow good fishing practices. He believes that fishing is “more sacred than secret“.
For the last eight years he has been solidly fishing ahi out of Honokōhau Harbor on the leeward side of the Big Island, spending up to three days on the water at a time. He fishes ika-shibi at night and trolls at the state’s fish aggregating devices (FADs) during the day. He is a successful fisherman as he combines different technologies with his observations of fish behavior. He watches the fish patterns and knows when they are down deep, shallow, inshore or offshore. He fishes ika-shibi from sunset to sunrise to take advantage of fish movement patterns. He deploys a parachute to act as a sea anchor to allow him to drift with the current and throws chum, which brings the fish to him. When he fishes at the FADs he uses a green stick, which is a vertical outrigger that extends high above his boat like a sail, and allows him to dance squid lures over the water to attract ahi. His ingenuity and know-how doesn’t stop there as he has designed his own electric reel and built his own 18 ft boat, which he painted pink (his favorite color), and he told us it makes him smile! Side note here: we made Shark Tagger hats in pink specifically for Lama:)
Like other fishers, Lama has competition for his ahi from sharks, whales, and dolphins.
However frustrating it might be to lose fish, he believes that these animals are part of the system too and play their part. He feels it is easier to understand this if you spend as much time on the water as he does. He does share the same sentiment as many fishers, which is that “you have to pay the tax man”. However, his perspective differs from others a bit in that he believes that “sharks eat on the same table, so we need to share and not be too greedy”.
Some perspectives shifted for Lama after he met Dr. Melanie Hutchinson (HCTP Principle Investigator). She told him that sharks have very few pups with some species that he interacts with (bigeye threshers), only having one pup every two to three years. This made him feel like sharks were almost human. He started to feel that he was playing his part in saving sharks by tagging and releasing them, and it became almost spiritual. This sentiment has led Lama to recruit other fishers to get involved with the Hawaii Community Tagging Program (HCTP). But Melanie also had some shifts in perspective after they first met out at TT buoy after a long night of unsuccessful fishing. Melanie was attempting to catch sharks for tagging but was coming up empty handed. She ran into Lama who was fishing for ahi but catching sharks. Later, Melanie gave him some tags which he was able to quickly deploy and provided really good data. After she watched videos that Lama had taken of himself easily tagging sharks, she quickly realized that fishers would be important collaborators for successfully tagging sharks to address data gaps for the shark species that interact with tuna fishers. After this collaboration, the Hawaii Community Tagging Program started to really take shape.
From Lama’s work with the HCTP we have learned that some sharks may be resident around Kona where he fishes: staying for a few days or weeks at a time, leaving the area for extended periods, and returning annually. Lama spends enough time on the water that he recognizes individual sharks and believes that there are some resident oceanic whitetip sharks that he sees around the FADs. Our tagging and photo identification program (using unique color patterns on the dorsal fins to identify individuals) corroborates that these sharks have short term residency (days or weeks) with intermittent absences, as we resight individuals at particular FADs or detect their tag as they swim by a tag receiver attached to the FAD. So far we have noticed that oceanic whitetip sharks may stick around when there are fish, leave when there are not fish, with some individuals returning after long absences of over a year. Lama has also tagged a bigeye and pelagic thresher shark with satellite tags, which showed very interesting movements around the islands for their whole tag deployment periods. This was very cool as we had previously assumed they were short-term visitors.
Our collaboration with Lama also included testing the addition of galvanic links inline with jugging rigs. When a shark appears to be a threat to a fisher’s ahi, some fishers will often attach a “jug” to encourage the shark to leave the area and prevent it from eating their catch. However, this has resulted in sharks dying with observations of some sharks floating dead still attached to jugs. Lama worked with us to test using galvanized links to attach jugs to sharks that would allow the links to dissolve within a couple hours as the mixed metals react with seawater. Lama placed survival satellite tags on the sharks, so we were able to verify the fate of the animals out to 60 days. The experiment was successful with all individuals surviving and leaving the area after being tagged. If anyone is interested in the galvanic links we can point you in the right direction!
Lama fishes because he believes the ocean is one of the last ‘untrampled places’ on the planet where some of the last wild animals can be caught. He wants fisheries to stay alive, which is a win-win for everyone. His opinion is that data is key to understanding the fish and the system. Yet he thinks scientists have a lack of data, so it is often hard for scientists and managers to understand the entire system as it is complex. He believes if you prioritize saving one animal in the system, then things may get out of balance. These concepts of managing the system as a whole were held by native Hawaiians for hundreds of years; however, these ideas of ecosystem management are only recently gaining traction by managers and scientists. He believes that fishers can fill in some of the data gaps as they are on the water all the time and see the whole picture.
Lama loves fishing and the surge of adrenaline when he’s catching; he says the “tug is the drug”. And he has gratitude for those big nights, such as the one where he caught 46, 60 to 80lb ahi by himself and pulled into the harbor with his catch on Thanksgiving day. But with fishing in his blood and many hours on the water, Lama has developed the mindset that fishing is less of a competition now and more spiritual. He believes that you will always have something to sell if you treat the system with respect.
Thanks Lama for sharing your unique perspectives and thoughts with us. We value you and what you have taught us and sincerely appreciate your help with research on reducing shark interactions non-lethally!