Proposed rules would curtail manta viewing
Manta ray viewing in West Hawaii may be curtailed under proposed rules to be considered at future public hearings.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation has developed a proposed series of rules that would limit the number and activities of permitted commercial manta ray viewing operators in order to mitigate overcrowding, environmental impacts and safety concerns.
DOBOR Administrator Ed Underwood said at a Thursday meeting of the Board of Land and Natural Resources that there currently are no regulations in place to govern manta ray viewing, which has led to significant overcrowding at West Hawaii sites. In his presentation, Underwood requested that the BLNR allow DOBOR to begin proceedings to formally adopt a new set of regulations for the industry.
The proposed new rules would limit manta viewing in Makako Bay and Kaukalaelae Point and significantly curtail the number of permits issued to manta viewing operators.
“There’s approximately 70 commercial use permits issued for manta viewing now,” Underwood said. “(We want) to limit that number to 24 per day per site.”
The rules also would cap the number of passengers per manta viewing to no more than 60 within 24 hours, require vessels to view mantas in shifts no longer than two hours, require a customer-to-guide ratio of 8 to 1, limit viewing hours from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m., and more.
“If you obtain a permit, you will attach to a mooring, the two-hour time period starts at the time you attach, you do your tour, you leave, and then the next group can come in,” Underwood said.
Underwood emphasized that the rules will not apply to recreational public use, meaning that noncommercial people could still paddle out to view mantas themselves.
While manta ray viewers would still be allowed outside of Makako Bay and Kaukalaelae Point, Underwood said that the rules would create a 7-nautical-mile-wide zone at the edges of those sites where commercial manta viewing is prohibited.
“If we create an area, people are just going to go right outside of the boundary and set up shop there,” Underwood said.
Underwood said eligible operators will enter into a lottery system to receive a permit, adding that those operators who have been in business longer will have priority. Permits will cost a fixed monthly fee of $300.
The rules also would establish certain safety requirements for equipment on manta viewing vessels. This, Underwood said, is partly a response to the April death of manta tour crew member Theresa Butts, who fell from a boat during a night viewing tour and was struck by the boat’s propeller.
Tour operators were skeptical of the proposed rules, with several testifying in opposition at Thursday’s meeting.
Dane Knezek, general manager of Aquatic Life Divers in Kailua-Kona, said the rules threaten to “irreparably damage the industry.”
“It is apparent that somebody who has very little understanding of the realities of the activities being discussed has drafted these rules, and they need a lot of work,” Knezek said, explaining that some of the safety requirements in the rules, such as propeller guards, don’t actually protect people or animals, but merely the equipment.
“Propeller guards would not have saved Theresa Butts,” Knezek said.
Furthermore, Knezek said the limitations imposed on viewers would still allow up to 1,440 daily viewers per site, which he said is more than currently view them now, and the requirement to operate between 4 p.m. and 4 a.m. is not meaningfully different than how operators currently schedule tours.
Knezek went on to suggest that DOBOR would award permits based on bias and favoritism, for which BLNR members chided him.
Operator Keller Laros said the rules will simply move the overcrowding elsewhere to other sites in West Hawaii, while operator Holly Crane worried that the rules may prohibit nonpowered boats from conducting manta tours at all.
Despite the concerns of the operators, the BLNR voted unanimously to approve rulemaking proceedings. Dates for public hearings about the rules have yet to be announced.
Email Michael Brestovansky at email@example.com.