WAILUKU, Hawaii (AP) — The Hawaii island of Molokai is among the state's least impacted areas by overfishing, a 17-year multiagency study found.

The study, which began in 2000 and encompassed 25,000 in-water surveys, found overfishing to be the primary cause of reef fish declines in Hawaii, The Maui News reported (http://bit.ly/2yblh2m). Maui and Oahu were most impacted by overfishing.

Molokai is more fortunate than the other islands in terms of fish numbers, being that it has the country's longest contiguous fringing reefs and is relatively free of the development that plagues other islands.

The abundance of food fish species — those primarily caught for human consumption — is lower in populated areas, while there is no difference in the abundance of nonfood fish species between populated and unpopulated areas, according to the study. This leads scientists to believe that fishing, rather than other human influences such as pollution or habitat degradation, is primarily responsible for the differences.

Alan M. Friedlander, a University of Hawaii marine ecologist and National Geographic's Pristine Seas chief scientist, said the data set is the largest ever compiled for Hawaii.

He called it "the most compelling evidence that overfishing is the primary driver of reef fish declines in the main Hawaiian Islands."

But Basil Oshiro, president of the Maui Cooperative Fishing Association, said that people are often too quick to single out fishermen for the decline of fish populations.

"I believe that the fish stock is depleted, but not because of overfishing," Oshiro said. "You got to look at what's happening on the land-based stuff. Whatever happens on land is going to affect the ocean."

Oshiro pointed to a number of factors, from development that causes pollution and interrupts freshwater flows to the ocean to things like injection wells that contaminate the waters.

Fisherman and conservationist Kelson Poepoe said he has taken it upon himself to spread awareness and encourage people to harvest responsibly on Molokai.

"No need be greedy," Poepoe said. "Everybody can have one share in the food that comes out of the ocean."

Educating people on the declining species and teaching them to avoid harvesting during spawning times has gone a long way toward helping protect marine resources, Poepoe said.

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Information from: The Maui News, http://www.mauinews.com