Kaniela Ing

At The State House

Addressing Maui’s Shark Attacks


Maui’s recent spate of sharks attacks has been tragic and alarming. Monday’s fatal attack on a kayaker came only three days after the bite of a snorkerler at Keawekapu only a couple of months after a fatality near Little Beach.  Then on Wednesday, another “aggressive” shark chased two spear-fishermen out of near-shore Makena waters.

This week’s attack marked Maui’s eighth and Hawaii’s thirteenth shark attack this year—more than triple the 20-year average of about four unprovoked incidents per year.



Shark attacks have been particularly grisly near South Maui.  While the entire world averages about four shark attack fatalities a year, South Maui has had two in 2013 alone, accounting for both of Hawaii’s only shark attack fatalities since 2004.


So, what is causing all the shark attacks?


The etymology answer will never be purely scientific since the number of sharks attacks are too low for marine biologists to do any statistical analysis.  DLNR and UH researchers have launched a tiger shark tracking program in September in waters near South Maui, but it is too early to draw any conclusions from the study.  For now, the best we can do is map patterns and theorize causes non-empirically.

Possible Cause #1: More and more turtles

One possible explanation is the growing green sea turtle (honu) population.    Tiger sharks feed on honu, and honu have become increasingly plentiful in South Maui.  Honu tend to not shy from people, and thereby might draw hungry sharks to cloudy and crowded shorelines.  Some argue that the honu, as a species, is no longer threatened and should have its protected status removed under the Endangered Species Act.  A similar argument is sometimes made for the Hawaiian monk seal, which also attract sharks.

Possible Action: declassifying the honu

Experts believe that monk seals have increasingly been trekking to the main Hawaiian islands because of environmental changes in the northwestern islands, thus creating the illusion of a thriving species.  However, the species incontestably remains endangered and in a population decline.

The honu’s status as “endangered” is more often disputed.  In the legislature, we voted down House Resolution 87, which would have asked to remove the honu’s federal protections.  I voted “no” because recovery goals under the U.S. Endangered Species Act remain unmet, and threats to the survival and recovery of honu from human activities are increasing, not decreasing.

Rather than prematurely reclassifying the honu, we must first ensure that snorkeling and turtle-watching tours are conducted responsibly.  There have been reports of these tours chumming the water to attract nearby honus.  These practices are dangerous and should cease, hopefully without the need for government intervention.

Possible Cause #2: Natural(ish) Causes

While causal evidence is limited, (1) whale breeding season; (2) eroding shorelines (3) nearby or recently hit storms; (4) depleting reef ecosystems and pelagic fish populations, (5) ocean temperature, tide, and current changes could all link to increased occurrences of shark attacks.  Human behavior may influence some of these variables such as over-development (erosion), over-fishing (depleted big fish populations), and excessive carbon emissions (ocean temperature, current changes, and storms).  However, I find it hard to believe that these variables have kept pace with the exponential spike of shark attacks that Hawaii has witnessed over the past two years.  Perhaps there’s a larger trend at work that we are missing by looking at the issue as a snapshot in time rather than as a flow of decades.

Possible Action: Shark Hunt or Netting?

Microfiche articles revealed three major shark culling (shark hunt) efforts in Hawaii in the past half century.  The first state-supported shark cull took place in 1958, the second in 1976, and the most recent in 1993.  The peaceful 17-18 year gaps between each shark hunt marks a striking pattern that seems to have gone unreported in recent news.  20 years has transpired since the last culling effort, which removed about 50 tiger sharks from Oahu’s north shore in 1993.  Following this pattern, population control is now a couple of years overdue, which could explain the exponential spikes in attacks and sightings in 2012 and 2013.

Shark Hunts

Even in light of this pattern, I believe culling efforts are much too extreme and should not be considered.  While some north shore surfers swear that the 1993 hunt worked, the decrease in attacks cannot be directly attributed to the hunt.  In fact, recent studies have demonstrated (Neff, 2011-2012) shark culling lacks effectiveness because sharks are more nomadic than previously thought and regularly travel hundreds of miles in search for food.  Removing sharks from a spot does not stop sharks from miles away from arriving and attacking.

Secondly, growth in the field of marine biology has taught us the importance of biodiversity and the critical role of sharks in marine ecosystems.  By irresponsibly adjusting shark populations, entire food webs could be devastatingly thrown off sync.  Moreover, shark hunts are sure to face cultural opposition from Native Hawaiians, pose further threats to tourism, and are generally viewed as inhumane.  Instead, recovery of our declining pelagic fish populations, through better protection and management of our fisheries, could help keep sharks feeding away from our shorelines.

Shark Nets

An alternative course of action is constructing and operating shark nets in high-incident areas.  Surfer’s Paradise in Australia, is currently implementing the most modern form of this method: a roughly 200-yard net system strategically placed in sections matching shark patterns of movement.  The nets are minimally intrusive for people, covering only a portion of the swimmable waters of beaches and bays.  Public workers empty the nets every morning, and relocate caught shark far from shore.

While endorsed by the Australian Department of Primary Industries in 2009, shark nets have stirred opposition because of their propensity to kill sharks or other endangered marine mammals such as whales or turtles.  Modern meshing and release programs have slightly alleviated this problem, but threats still exist.  If we consider shark netting, it should be only as a back-up option.  The implementation should be on a limited scale, with regular and adequate oversight, and in concert with shark tracking programs.

File:Shark net example.svg

Possible Cause #3: More people in the water

The spike of attacks could simply be the case of more people in the water.  The South Maui population of both locals and tourists have risen dramatically over the past couple decades, while shark populations have shown no signs of decline.  Logically, with more people swimming, we will see more attacks.  I asked some kupuna fishermen out in Makena what our waters used to be like years ago.  I learned that moe and mullet frequented the mudflats in Makena right around the seasonal months we are in now.  The sharks would regularly come around;  the difference now is the people.

Possible Action: Public Awareness Campaign

As a first course of action, Hawaii needs to improve its public outreach regarding shark and general ocean safety awareness.  We should better notify tourists via brochures, magazines, and signage found on airports or planes, and notify all beach goer with permanent signs on incident-prone beaches.  Signage should use neutral but factual language that does not expressly promote fear.  Language should emphasize the ocean being, “the wild” and that it is the home to predators who may be territorial.

Other countries and states have even gone as far as to fund commercials and public building ads promoting shark awareness.  I’ll continue speaking with the leadership of Hawaii Tourism Authority, DLNR, and other organizations to see exactly what is being done for public awareness and what more we can collectively do either through legislation, administrative action, or community partnerships.


Take Home Points

Sharks are not man-eaters.  They don’t bite people because they are hungry.  As Keoni Downing put it, “when I’m hungry, I don’t just take a bite out of the musubi, then put it back on the plate.  I eat the whole thing.”  Shark don’t have hands or fingers, just a mouth.  So bites on people are usually test bites for the shark to figure out what the person is.

Through ocean safety education, community based planning, and better management and protection of our fisheries and reef ecosystems, we will do a big part in making our oceans safer.

For now,the best way to avoid shark attacks is to swim where people are or usually swim, avoid murky or dark conditions, don’t swim with fish guts or blood in the water, and most of all, stay close to shore, especially when on your own.  Remember, shark bites are still highly unlikely.  You’re actually far more likely to simply drown while swimming in the ocean — or die in a car crash on the way to the beach — than you are to be killed by a shark.  While you enjoy the ocean, take these safety tips seriously, and remember that the ocean is the wild, and the domain and home of the creatures that live in it.  Swim safe!

  • South Maui
  • Skye Coe

    Mahalo Nui Loa Kaneila for taking a leadership role in addressing this issue of importance to all! Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Āina a me ka Kai a me Na Mano i ka Pono!

  • omaopio

    Thanks for this forum. Please consider the possibility that there is no “problem.” Even though there have been more bites this year than in previous years, the number of shark incidents is still really, really small when you consider the number of people in the water. Sharks happen to be more terrifying to people than cars or high-fructose corn syrup. That does not mean they are more deadly. The real problem is not sharks, it’s shark fear! Let’s solve this problem with a pr campaign promoting respect and understanding for sharks.

    Also, shark hunts of any kind are a terrible idea. Research shows that they don’t work at all, cost a bundle, and potentially disrupt the ecosystem.

  • PaiaGirl

    I think “More people in the water” is a major cause. But one cause you didn’t mention is the Maui Ocean Center catching sharks, teaching them to associate people with food and then releasing them.

    If they are going to continue doing this (which they should NOT) then each shark should be fitted with a tracker and we should study whether it is these sharks which are so fearlessly attacking people.

    Also in the old days, I am told that Hawaiians surfing, diving etc, varied the places where they did this so that sharks would not become accustomed to finding people and their catch in certain spots. These days that is hard to do (back to more people in the water and our shores being fished out)

  • Chandrika McLaughlin

    This is a thoughtful reflection. I believe we should make sure that over fishing is not depleting their food supply driving them to rely more on turtles and come in to the near shore waters. Having people spear fishing where others are trying to peacefully swim and snorkel is dangerous, as well.

  • Dennis Kleid

    I have seen several folks over the last few months using nets to catch fish near the shoreline as well as several hundred feet out. Once, upon confrontation, they left their net and fish behind. This practice should be investigated as a possible cause for sharks coming so close to shore.

  • clairekellerman

    Beautiful: I love the many points and feel inspired to ponder co-creative – mutually beneficial – responses to this crisis/opportunity. So sad for the lives lost. Sending blessings for those who died. Praying for our clarity on how to co-exist with sharks and let them thrive in their own way, while we live and thrive as well.

  • mauaiian

    I swim in the water all the time. I have yet to bother a shark, and a shark has yet to bother me! :)

  • Lisa Andrews

    Chemicals from gmo fields, resorts, and residential lawns run off into our streams and oceans killing off life around the islands. STOP USING ROUND UP AND OTHER CHEMICALS NOW. Vinegar will do the same job… or try a pick or weeder. Erosion comes with killing the soils microorganisms too. The ocean is not our toilet. PLEASE LOOK INTO GROUND COVERS THAT DO NOT NEED CARE LIKE LAWNS. Wake up, and take responsibility.

  • Diana St Gaudens

    So simple. make noise on the surface and you are calling the sharks…clank clank splash, splash…the noise of the SUP…..wump, wump…splash, splash, the noise of the kiteboarder. In the old days we all said “don’t splash ‘cuz you’ll call the sharks, so as surfers, we slipped quietly through the water. Now all the racket is speaking loudly “come here shark”.

  • For the Fishes

    Kaniela, all the possible reasons for increased shark attacks are true for all of the islands, not just Maui County. What does Maui County have that the rest of the state doesn’t?….. Maui Ocean Center which, for over a decade, has been capturing tiger sharks and holding, feeding, and acclimating them to people with their “swim with the shark” tours. Then, they set them free in Maui county waters. Shark cage diving and feeding sharks is prohibited in Maui County and elsewhere because of the safety concerns that sharks *may* learn to associate people with food. Maui Ocean Center must be held accountable for their potential contribution to these attacks. It’s time for them to stop profiting from a practice that is so potentially dangerous. Please help.

  • keo

    It would be wise to consult with some kupuna from that area. Today, we tend to rely too much on western science to answer these kinds of questions – and it’s mostly theories. Also, I agree the Maui Ocean Center should not be capturing the Mano and using them like that. If we don’t stop that we should expect these types of things to happen to us humans. We cannot keep treating animals as if they are our possessions to do with whatever we want. How Shame! How is this even legal? Lastly, we all (should) know not to swim in murky water especially in the early evening. And lets all pay attention to the Wiliwili – when it is in bloom the sharks are close in- it’s breeding time. Also, after hard rains the sharks come into feed especially around where the rivers go into the ocean. Lets not blame the Honu or the fishermen. Although it is bad to leave a net it doesn’t happen that often and isn’t the cause of sharks biting humans.