Proposed rules could limit manta ray tours off Kona Coast

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KAILUA-KONA — The Department of Land and Natural Resources is looking at new rules that could limit the number of manta ray viewing tours that can operate at two popular tour sites.

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KAILUA-KONA — The Department of Land and Natural Resources is looking at new rules that could limit the number of manta ray viewing tours that can operate at two popular tour sites.

The rules would restrict anchoring at popular spots as well as limit the number of vessels that can attach to moorings in the area. How the department will decide who can use the moorings, said a department official, is “the million dollar question.”

The department’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation has been looking at ways to control the increasing number of vessels at Makako Bay and Keauhou Bay, the two most popular sites for manta ray viewing.

“We came up with a bunch of things that we thought would really help with human safety and manta-vessel interaction and manta-human interaction,” said Maria Gaydos of the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, adding that the department met with tour operators last October to hash out some potential fixes to the issue.

A report prepared last year by Marine Science Consulting LLC counted between 16 and 19 vessels a night at Makako Bay, also referred to as Garden Eel Cove, with 160 to 190 people in the water. At Keauhou Bay, they counted between seven and 22 vessels a night with 114 to 177 people in the water.

While the risk of a serious incident is low, the report said, the rate of activity in the area gives “ample opportunity” for an accident to happen. Specifically, they raised concerns about the potential for a boat striking a person in the water or an anchor being dropped on a diver below.

One issue is the lack of available moorings in the bays.

Each site has only seven moorings, according to the Marine Science report. As a result, vessels will commonly attach themselves end to end, with two or three vessels sharing a single mooring, a practice referred to as “rafting.” Other vessels which can’t attach to mooring will drop anchor nearby, despite a DLNR rule banning vessels from anchoring within 100 yards of a mooring.

In recent years, the department’s DBOR started looking into the issue to determine what could be done to alleviate it.

One of the ideas kicked around when the department met with operators was a proposed ban on rafting.

All the operators agreed on that, Gaydos said.

Those talks gave the division a “basic outline” of issues to be tackled.

That included limiting the number of vessels, regulating future operations and limiting anchoring. A management proposal outlining some rules will come out Sept. 10, Gaydos said, but any new rules likely won’t come into effect until 2018.

The division is also looking at installing new moorings, which was a common request in meetings with tour operators.

The number of moorings to be installed is yet to be determined. Gaydos said that number would have to be decided based on engineering data from the bays.

“At this point, we’re ready to discuss with the public how many moorings we could have at the sites and what their intended use might be,” she said.

Gaydos said the division is looking for “as much input as possible” to organize their comprehensive management plan.

A meeting was scheduled for Saturday, but it has been rescheduled due to Tropical Storm Madeline for Sept. 24 at the Hawaii Community College – Palamanui campus.

The division’s proposal to limit one vessel to each mooring brings with it a hard limit on the number of vessels that could give manta ray viewing tours in the area.

“Regardless of which model of the rule we pass, there will be a limit based on the fact that we’re definitely going to say, ‘One boat per mooring,’” said Gaydos.

The other option, she said, is to say operators need a permit for a mooring and the moorings are exclusive.

Gaydos cited a study from years ago that asked visitors if the quality of service was degrading as a result of the heavy traffic.

“It’s a very popular activity that’s being really sensationalized in magazines and the media and stuff because it’s so cool,” she said. “So it is coming to a point where we have to think about overcrowding.”

“And ultimately, unfortunately, what that means is we have to limit commercial access to the sites.”

How will DLNR decide who gets access?

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Gaydos.

The management proposal, she said, will have a few ideas of how the department could choose who gets the moorings. While she was hesitant to go into detail about all the proposals, Gaydos said an auction “is a no-go.”

Gaydos said the division needs legal authority to run an auction, which it doesn’t in this case.

A lottery-style distribution is a possibility. The most extreme option, she said, would be nobody gets a permit.

“We’re really going to present the gamut,” she said. “We’re gonna say ‘These are the options.’ I have a feeling it’s going to fall somewhere in the middle.”

At any rate, she said, there aren’t going to be 20 boats in the water at the same time with hundreds of people around them.

“It’s really not sustainable in terms of safety,” she said.

Some tour company owners interviewed before the proposed rules came out said limiting access would hurt their businesses.

Tim Conners, who owns Wahine Charters, said his company only runs one boat and seven households depend on his company being able to give tours. Conners said he had heard about the possibility that access to the viewing sites could be limited.

“If I didn’t get a manta ray permit, we’d go out of business,” he said, adding manta ray viewing tours make up two thirds of his business.

Conners said the problem in his view isn’t capacity, it’s enforcement of the rules already in place.

“It’s my opinion that the sites can handle the number of people going out there if and only if they enforce the guidelines that are already in place,” he said.

Conners said issues like vessels dropping anchor into coral is already illegal, but the government does nothing to enforce that. It’s also dangerous, given the possibility of an anchor hitting a diver below, stated the Marine Science report.

Conners did, however, agree that more mooring needed to be installed in the area. If that happened, he said, the bay could accommodate the crowds.

“I think the ocean is big enough for all of us,” he said.

Another operator said that while she agrees there’s an issue with overcrowding, the DLNR bears some responsibility for the problem.

A few years ago, the department issued more ramp permits, which opened up tours to new businesses.

“It came down without anybody taking into consideration what that impact would be,” said Melainah Yee, who owns Sunlight on Water with her husband.

Yee said she’s noticed the increase in crowds at the viewing sites.

“It definitely has changed over the last 10 or 11 years,” she said. “There are a lot of boats and there are a lot of people.”

For that reason, the company decided to separate from the crowds, which typically gather around a spot in the bay called “the campfire,” but which Yee referred to as “the mosh pit.”

“There’s definitely reason for concern,” she said.

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However, she said DLNR “helped create the problem” by opening up permits even when the bays started getting crowded.

“It’s kinda like trying to put the genie back in the bottle,” she said.

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