Sharks taking a bite out of Hawaiian water sports, stirring controversy

HONOLULU — HONOLULU -- When the hala trees blossom here, native Hawaiians are apt to say, "Ai naki ka mano" -- the shark is snapping its jaws.

Throughout the Hawaiian islands this past month, the hala trees have bloomed their white spiney flowers. And the sharks?


They have bared their teeth in a spate of chilling encounters with surfers and body boarders that has prompted a public outcry for a massive shark hunt to rid the aquamarine waters off Oahu of the snub-nosed predators.

The attacks -- including one recently that left an 18-year-old man dead -- sent fishermen out to sea with baited hooks to catch the culprits.


Scientists and state officials discussed implementing a shark control program in the land of Aloha, where cliff-studded shores, pristine beaches and high-riding surf support a lucrative $10-billion-a-year tourist industry.

And native Hawaiians, whose cultural and religious heritage embody the flora and fauna of the Pacific island chain, renewed their concerns about the potential wholesale slaughter of sharks, an animal revered by some members of the indigenous population as a "guardian spirit."

Be it owl, eel or shark, "that animal guards the person's family for as long as two or three generations. They become an 'aumakua,' a guardian for the family," said Parley Kanakaole, a Hawaiian community leader on the neighboring island of Maui.

When a Maui woman was killed by a tiger shark last November while swimming within 100 yards of her waterfront home, men espousing the Hawaiian belief of "aumakua" threatened the fishermen who were hired to hunt the attacker.

Since then, state officials have enlisted the support of Hawaiian leaders in their quest to strike a balance between water sports enthusiasts, who support an eradication program like the one implemented in the late 1960s that fished thousands of tiger sharks from island waters, and the naturalists who liken man's presence in the water to an invasion of the shark's domain.

Sharks are plentiful

A shark telephone hot line, aerial surveys, sonic tagging of the sleek, yellow-striped scavengers -- each has been discussed by a special state task force on sharks whose membership includes lifeguards, biologists and Hawaiian community leaders.

"Everybody has an opinion on sharks," says Linda McCrerey, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, "every surfer, every oceanographer, every swimmer."


And everyone has their own theory for the apparent increase in shark attacks -- seven have been reported on Oahu, Hawaii's most populous island, and its sister isle, Maui, since the spring of 1991.

There's the notion that a preponderance of sea turtles in shallow waters off Oahu (a protected species on which sharks feed) have lured sharks closer to shore.

There are those who believe that the sharks have mistaken body boarders -- whose arms and legs flop over the edge of their brightly-colored boards -- for the reptiles.

Unlike Florida, where commercial and recreational fishing have so depleted the shark population that federal officials are trying to protect 39 species, marine biologists here estimate that there are 1.8 tiger sharks for every mile of shoreline.

And in Hawaii, where surfing is a rite of passage for most young men and children learn to swim as soon as or before they walk, shark attacks are front-page news.

Are the hunts effective?


Rick Gruzinsky, a 26-year-old carpenter, lived to tell the story of his tug-of-war with a shark that tore a chunk from his fiberglass surfboard on a blue-sky morning last month.

Aaron Romento, however, wasn't as lucky. Although the 18-year-old managed to paddle to shore on his body board after the Nov. 5 attack, he bled to death from a deep gash on his leg.

As in the past, state officials hunted the offshore waters for the attacker.

"Once you have an attack or an incident, a number of us feel the best thing to do is to fish that area immediately," says John J. Naughton, a biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Honolulu. "As with any large predator, if they have fed successfully in an area, there's a chance they would return to feed again."

A line with a dozen hooks, each baited with slabs of "ahi" or tuna, was set at dusk. At dawn, the haul was reeled in. About a half-dozen tiger sharks were caught -- including a 14-footer. Autopsies later revealed nothing to link the sharks to the attacks.

But several marine researchers familiar with the hunts questioned their effect.


"You could set a hundred hooks for a hundred nights and never catch a shark. And the next day you could have a shark attack," says Steve Kaiser, a marine curator at Honolulu's Sea Life Park who supports additional research into shark behavior. "It's a very fragile type of balance. . . . If you are totally terrified of sharks, stay in a swimming pool."

Part of the food chain

When Mark Dale rides the tube of a wave, his body board streaking through the surf, sharks are the farthest thing from his mind.

"It's like time standing still. It's kind of like being stuck in a daydream," says the 22-year-old Hawaii native who works in a surfboard factory.

In the days after body boarder Aaron Romento was killed in a shark attack on Oahu's leeward coast, dozens of body boarders bobbed in the 5-foot swells of the famed Banzai Pipeline on the other side of the island.

"In the back of your mind, you know you're entering the food chain," says Mr. Dale. "It's that risk you have to take."


But to his way of thinking, chances of getting attacked by a shark are like "the chances of getting hit by lightning," says the trim, tanned young man.

Born and raised on the island, Mr. Dale says he respects the native Hawaiians' concern for the sharks: "I would say leave them alone. But when do you draw the line?"

Even ancient Hawaiians drew a line. And their descendants point that out today when discussing the beliefs surrounding "aumakua."

Animals that became guardian spirits for a particular family did so after embodying the spirit of a dead relative who had entered into a special relationship with the animal.

Among fishermen, a shark "aumakua" was perhaps the most popular. This guardian spirit would ward off danger, help lure food to an empty net, lead a canoe to safe shores. Not all sharks, however, represented family or personal gods. Hawaiians did hunt and kill "stranger" sharks who were "lusting after human flesh," legends say.

But at a time when a group of native Hawaiians -- about 16 percent of the state's 1.2 million people -- are pushing for sovereignity, legends are crucial links to the past.


"There [are] people in Hawaii who still believe in their ancestral ties," says Charles Kauluwehi Maxwell, a Maui radio talk-show host who first raised the issue of the shark's status in Hawaiian culture following a fatal attack there last year. "The ocean is the shark's element. We should study why they are coming in. Gotta be something causing this."

The state, Mr. Maxwell maintains, is "afraid to make an all-out education program because it will scare the tourists away -- the 'Jaws' syndrome. If there is a shark attack, then go out and get him, but don't wipe out the sharks."

'I knew it was a shark'

Surfer Rick Gruzinsky has a new appreciation for the ocean since he stared eye-to-eye with a tiger shark one morning last month.

"I have a greater respect for what I share the ocean with," says the blond, blue-eyed carpenter. "I don't fear being attacked again. I fear someone else being attacked."

When the shark struck, the surfer was floating on his board about 150 yards off shore, waiting for a wave. "As soon as I started getting lifted, I knew it was a shark," says Mr. Gruzinsky, who grew up in a small mining town in Pennsylvania and moved to Hawaii as a teen-ager. "He lifted the board and flipped it and latched onto the rail almost in one motion."


The surfer slipped into the water and grabbed the back of the over turned board.

"I was able to see the large blunt snout, the eye just below the water. I saw him adjusting his bite. I heard the fiberglass cracking. The piece broke away," Mr. Gruzinsky says. "The last I saw the shark was sinking with the piece."

He escaped with scrapes to his stomach from a broken board fin. Before that morning, Rick Gruzinsky didn't think there was a shark problem.

"After almost becoming a statistic, you take the time to learn," he says.

Recently, Hawaii's task force on sharks weighed in with its solution: Aggressively hunt large tiger sharks at six sites on Oahu, including the

relatively placid waters off Waikiki and the famous surfing pipeline along the island's North Shore.


"We are expanding our shark-hunt guidelines from 'large sharks that bite' to 'large sharks before they bite,' " announced William Paty, task force chairman.

A special hot line will be established, and military helicopters will scour the shoreline for possible suspects. Mr. Paty pledged to "remain sensitive" to native Hawaiian beliefs regarding sharks. Hawaiian elders will continue to be consulted during shark hunts.

But he said "we cannot sit around and twiddle our thumbs, because the evidence is clear we have a public safety problem."