COLUMN ONE : Hawaii in the Jaws of a Dilemma : Oahu surfers say deadly sharks lurk beneath the waves, but state officials say it's just a wave of hysteria. Some residents want the sharks left alone, but no one wants tourists to go away.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not far off the coast of Waikiki, where thousands would splash in the surf the next day, a series of meat hooks baited with freshly killed tuna dangled beneath the night sea.

Hawaii had reluctantly embarked on another shark hunt, hoping to catch nothing and put an end to persistent claims--mostly from surfers--that tiger sharks had become a menace off the heavily populated south shore of Oahu.

The state had conducted similar hunts after attacks on surfers last winter and earlier this summer off the sparsely populated north and west shores. In each of those, a specially commissioned task force had caught the sharks it considered responsible for the attacks.

This time officials, prompted by what they said was an unusual number of reported sightings on the south shore, had hoped to prove the safety of the water off Waikiki, an area with no history of problems but one visited by 4 million tourists each year.

The overnight hunt in late June turned up only a small sandbar shark, a species not considered particularly dangerous. Relieved officials declared the situation resolved.

But the controversy lingers. An increasing number of surfers claim the government is downplaying a serious problem to preserve its vital tourist industry. State and federal officials say the surfers are overreacting. Other residents--including some surfers--say surfers have always faced the risk of attack, and sharks should be left alone because the ocean is their domain, not man's.

The tiger shark, meanwhile, has become the target of vigilantes who have taken it upon themselves to remove as many as they can. The state's policy is to hunt sharks only after attacks.

"Quite frankly, I think it is hysteria," says Stanley Hong, 55, president of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau. "Even though there have been some sharks, small ones, sighted close in to Waikiki. . . . Essentially, people sometimes forget that the ocean happens to be a habitat of things that swim."

Marine biologists say there is no way to determine the number of sharks in Hawaiian waters but say there are probably more than before the state's last shark control program in 1976.

Among the region's 40 or so species, eight live near shore and among those only the tiger shark--which can grow to 20 feet or more--is considered extremely dangerous.

The state has removed fewer than 20 large tiger sharks since the first attack of 1992. Free-lance hunters are believed to have taken at least another 30.

"You have more and more people in the water and a huge shark population growing at geometric proportions," said James Jones, 40, a Honolulu resident who became well-known in the early 1970s for his big-wave riding. "We know there are more sharks, more people and more attacks--the facts are indisputable. As far as I'm concerned, to hell with the visitor industry. I don't think that all the sharks in the ocean are worth one human life."

Since the first documented attack in Hawaii in 1779, there have been an average of two or three a year, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. Most have occurred off Oahu and involve surfers and bodyboarders, who often paddle out hundreds of yards.

Surfers are quick to note that last year there were four confirmed attacks--one of them fatal--and a probable attack on a bodyboarder who disappeared and was presumed dead.

In the first attack, Bryan Adona, 29, of Ewa disappeared in February, 1992, while bodyboarding near Waimea Bay on the north shore of Oahu. His board washed ashore the next morning with teeth marks made by what was believed to be a large tiger shark.

A month later, a surfer on the neighboring island of Kauai suffered a small foot wound when a shark bit her surfboard.

These incidents passed without much commotion. But when north swells started breaking over the outer reefs last autumn, marking the beginning of another surfing season on Oahu's north shore, a series of attacks brought tiger sharks back into the spotlight.

In the worst case, Aaron Romento, 18, of Pearl City was bodyboarding off the west side of Oahu on Nov. 5 when he was severely bitten on the right leg by a tiger shark only 30 yards from shore. He died a short time later of loss of blood.

Two other cases, both on the north shore, involved surfers who had crescent-shaped chunks bitten from their boards while they were lying on them. Both suffered only scrapes.

The attacks put Hawaii under pressure from both surfers who wanted hunts and residents who didn't. But the state got a reprieve as winter turned to spring with no further incidents.

However, when winter storms in the Southern Hemisphere generated swells that reached the south shore in early June, another season began. And it didn't take long for the shark issue to surface, more volatile than ever.

On June 10, Jon Mozo, 22, of Laie was surfing off the northeast shore. A tiger shark grabbed him by both feet as he was lying on his board.

"I didn't even have a clue there was even a shark in the water," Mozo said. He was able to pull his feet from the mouth of the shark before it got a grip, but he suffered deep cuts and was briefly hospitalized.

"He shut (his mouth) right after that, and he was just shaking back and forth, and I saw him open his mouth again," Mozo said. "I don't know what happened next because I turned around and I freaked out and paddled away as fast as I could. I never looked back."

Others began to freak out as well. It was summer vacation, and tourism in Waikiki was reaching its peak. Even though there had never been an attack on a tourist, some vacationers were getting edgy. The Honolulu Advertiser carried a story about the attack on Mozo and later there were front-page pictures of a 13-foot tiger shark caught along with a 10-footer by the task force. The 13-footer was believed responsible for the attack. There was almost daily news coverage of dead sharks and of the exploits of vigilantes.

"I've been reading about (the sharks) a little too much to feel comfortable," said Pam Stills, 42, visiting from Arizona with her husband and two children, on the day of the Waikiki hunt. Assured by lifeguards that the water was safe, she reluctantly let her children go in but kept a close watch.

To make matters worse, this was the time of year when scalloped hammerhead sharks--smaller and less dangerous than great hammerheads, and much less dangerous than tiger sharks--filter through the deeper channels between the reefs to spawn, before moving back to deeper water.

Dark shadows moving through a turquoise sea were the last thing swimmers and surfers wanted to see.

"These sharks are minding their own business and not posing a threat to anybody," said Randy Honebrink, a spokesman for the state task force.

Hong of the Visitors Bureau agreed: "The media generally likes to pick these things up and say, 'Shark-infested Waikiki waters,' and it isn't true."

To prove its case, on the night of June 21, the task force dropped 12 hooks on a line secured by anchors that stretched from Kewalo Basin to Ala Wai Harbor near Ala Moana. It was the state's first attempt to catch sharks off Waikiki since December, after the north shore attacks.

When the lone taker was a 5 1/2-foot sandbar shark, officials breathed a huge sigh of relief.

John Naughton, a biologist for the National Marine Fisheries Service and a member of the task force, called the uneventful catch "eventful for us because there was no big tiger shark on the line; that's the last thing we wanted to catch."

Naughton told Honolulu newspapers that "this supports our contention that there are no shark problems in the Waikiki area."

Tourists were also relieved. But many in the surfing community were not. They blasted the state for dismissing after one overnight hunt the possibility of a shark problem that they claimed would warrant periodic hunts to control future threats.

Arthur Kamisugi, 44, is a Honolulu orthodontist and longtime surfer who worked with the task force during a hunt on the north shore last winter. He claimed to have caught seven- and eight-foot tiger sharks off Waikiki in the days leading up to the state hunt.

On the night the task force was setting its hooks off Waikiki, Scott Moncrief, 25, a commercial fisherman who dives along the southeast shore, went hunting off Kailua, about 25 miles away.

The next morning, Moncrief and two companions had their hands full with an 11 1/2-foot tiger shark. The shark came to life when Moncrief grabbed the line, which was shaking with such force that it nearly pulled the bow of Moncrief's 18-foot Boston Whaler under.

Moncrief eventually subdued the shark and towed it back to the beach to prepare it for market.

Moncrief later told Naughton that in two weeks he caught 11 sharks, five of them tigers, two of them 14-footers.

He told a reporter that a 20-foot tiger shark attacked one of the hooked 14-footers while he watched from above.

"Its mouth was as big as the beam of this boat," Moncrief said, holding his arms outstretched at the bow of the Boston Whaler. "He just took one huge bite and ripped the shark's side off. All we got were the fins. We dumped the rest because, basically, there was nothing left."

Fishing for sharks is not illegal, but evidence of such vigilantism suggests a growing discontent with the state and how it is handling the situation.

"What are they waiting for, some politician or some important person to get eaten?" asked Barry Kanaiaupuni, 47, a well-known big-wave rider from the '70s who lives in the hills above Waimea.

That happened in 1958, when 15-year-old Billy Weaver, son of a wealthy businessman, was on an air mattress off Lanikai, Oahu, when a shark bit off his leg in front of a horrified crowd. When his body was recovered two hours later, a tiger shark estimated at 15 to 20 feet was seen nearby.

Jones recalled that Weaver's father offered a bounty of $100 for every tiger shark 10 feet or larger.

"His father owned a big restaurant chain," Jones said. "He had pull, got it done. Every gas station on the island had sharks hanging from the rafters, and then the state took on the program and they fished on a regular basis."

The state effort was responsible for the killing of 697 sharks, only 87 of which were tigers. Since then, there have been smaller shark control programs, in 1967 and 1968, 1972 and 1976.

"Since 1976, they haven't done any controlled or systematic fishing (for sharks), so you could say that the tiger shark population has rebounded back to almost normal," said Richard Grigg, a big-wave rider in the 1950s and a professor of oceanography at the University of Hawaii. "And you can correlate that with the increase in attacks. It's not just more people in the water; it's definitely more sharks."

Tiger sharks have a life span of about 25 years. They reach reproductive maturity at about 10 years and can produce between 40 and 80 pups. They generally remain in deep water during the day and swim into the shallows at dusk to feed on reef fish, crustaceans and smaller sharks before moving back to deep water before daybreak.

A recent state-sponsored study concluded that reef fish, particularly around Oahu, have declined by about 80% over the years. The lobster fishery has suffered a similar decline.

"It just stands to reason that they're really having a hard time getting enough to eat," Grigg said of the sharks. "So they probably stay around longer in the morning because they haven't got enough to eat during the night, so instead of going back out to deep water, which is their normal behavior, they hang around in shallow water for a longer period of time, and that brings them into direct contact with the dawn patrol."

The dawn patrol is the early-morning surfers. Most attacks on surfers and swimmers have occurred in early morning or late afternoon.

But is hunting sharks the answer?

Dr. Kim Holland, associate researcher at Hawaii's Marine Institute of Oceanography and a consultant for the task force, said too little is known about tiger sharks to suggest that random hunts will decrease the possibility of attacks.

"There were quite a lot taken (during past shark hunts), but we don't know how these sharks emigrate to fill in," Holland said. "With the hunts, you give people a false sense of security because you've got no guarantee that by taking the animals out that you've reduced significantly the risk of shark attack."

The issue had been simmering again until recently when a free-lance hunter hauled up a 16-foot tiger shark on the east side of the island. That made the front pages of local newspapers and seemed indicative of a pattern that has no end.

Herb Kane, 65, who lives on the nearby island of Hawaii, has argued against shark hunts on behalf of native Hawaiians, some of whom believe that certain sharks have deified ties to their ancestral past. He said it is the surfers, not the sharks, who are becoming too bold, paddling out in areas where sharks are known to feed.

"The answer is simply not to go in those waters," said Kane. "When I was a kid, they drummed in our heads the dos and don'ts regarding sharks: Do not go in the water at dark or very early in the morning because that's when the big guys come up to the shallow water to feed. Do not go into murky water at the mouth of a stream because that's also dark water. There were a number of admonitions that kids today are not getting."

Task force spokesman Honebrink, from his Honolulu branch office of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said that this being an island-state, there are no real answers. Hawaii can only hope the issue will fade on its own.

He added, however, that it would be naive to believe there won't be more attacks.

"There will be another attack, there's no question about it. I would say there's going to be two more this year, because we're up to an average of about four a year now. It's not a question of if, it's a question of when."

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