Changes on horizon for Molokini rules

More than 100 attend meeting to discuss fish displacement, overcrowding

Snorkelers get ready to tour Molokini Crater, a protected conservation district less than 3 miles off Maui’s south coast. More than 360,000 people visited the islet in 2018 and nearly 25-year-old rules relating to the area’s access need to be updated, said the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. -- State Department of Land and Natural Resources photo

KIHEI — Cultural, environmental, managerial and financial concerns rose to the surface at a public meeting over state-proposed rule changes for the Molokini conservation district, a popular snorkeling and diving crater less than 3 miles off Maui’s south coast.

Recently, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources began floating the idea of trimming the number of tour boats allowed to moor at Molokini at any one time from 20 to possibly 12, pointing to reports of overcrowding and changes in fish behavior. Ocean tourism officials shot back by supporting bills moving through the state Legislature that would keep the number of boats at 20.

Citing a 2016 study that links more people with fewer fish, DLNR’s Aquatic Resources Division presented information on overcrowding and fish movement, as well as on bills in the state Legislature, to a large crowd Thursday night at Kihei Community Center.

DLNR said the protected Molokini Marine Life Conservation District drew more than 360,000 snorkelers and divers last year, an increase from previous years.

The meeting is the first in a process that would help update the district’s administrative rules, last amended in 1995, said Russell Sparks, a Maui-based aquatic biologist with the Division of Aquatic Resources.

Biologist Russell Sparks of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Aquatic Resources Division presented information on Molokini fish displacement and overcrowding during a meeting Thursday night that drew more than 100 people to Kihei Community Center. -- The Maui News / KEHAULANI CERIZO photo

“These issues are not unique to Hawaii; they’ve been faced by many popular tourist destinations,” he said.

After the presentation, the more than 100 attendees, representing commercial tour boat operations, environmentalists, Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and concerned citizens, broke up into smaller groups, where some discussions turned heated.

State officials asked participants Thursday if there are ways to keep Molokini open and accessible to all and about possibly having two noncommercial-only moorings and updating permit fees.

Sam Garcia of the Makena Homeowners Association said an islandwide plan is needed, because boats not allowed to visit Molokini will overflow into areas on the leeward side of Maui.

“If we don’t have a larger plan, all areas on the leeward side will be impacted even more,” he said. “My concern is that we expand our horizons past Molokini and think about the rest of the island.”

A popular diving and snorkeling islet off Maui’s coast may get some updated rules, with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources citing a 2010 study that showed visitors feeling crowded at Molokini when there are too many boats and a 2016 study linking fish displacement to 12 or more boats in the crater. Commercial tour operators are pressing for bills in the state Legislature that would keep the cap at 20. -- State Department of Land and Natural Resources photo

Responding to a group question on limiting Molokini moorings to 12, with two used for noncommercial users, Randy Coon, president and captain of local sailing company Trilogy, said the number is “punitive and unworkable.”

“The number is predicated on reducing it to a number that’s already unsustainable,” he said.

“Close to 30 percent of the time we can’t even go there,” he added, citing poor weather conditions and other restrictions.

Blake Moore, Pacific Whale Foundation vessel operations director, said additional scientific studies need to be done to prove negative impact of boats and people.

“The biomass in Molokini Crater is the same as untouched Kahoolawe,” he said. “We need a baseline for omilu (bluefin trevally) movement and additional studies.”

Several people echoed the need to increase cultural education and sensitivity when visiting Molokini Crater.

“When you hear the cultural perspective of the area, your visitors will have a better experience,” said Kaonohi Lee, a Native Hawaiian and Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission officer, adding that she would like tour boat operators and cultural practitioners to work together to enhance education.

Moore said “guests want that,” and cultural and historical training should be a part of every Molokini operation. He said there is a challenge to find accurate information, though, since stories vary among descendants.

Several commercial boat tour participants critiqued a 2010 study presented by DLNR that said Molokini visitors felt overcrowded. A survey found that more than 60 percent of all visitors felt crowded when too many boats were in the crater, the state said. That year, about 300,000 people visited the area.

“We didn’t agree with how the questions were posed,” Coon said. “It was driven by confirmation bias, and it was flawed from the start.”

DLNR also presented Thursday a 2013 Conservation Action Planning study that suggested top Molokini management concerns, include reducing crowding, improving public access and increasing reef etiquette and Molokini-specific knowledge.

In 2015-16, an assessment of the underwater acoustic environment, the number of boats and people visiting Molokini and the movement patterns of reef predators showed 50 percent of omilu, a key nearshore reef predator, were displaced from crater shallows into deeper water when the number of boats exceeded 12, the state said.

“Although the coral reef habitat appears to remain healthy, the displacement of key reef predators is an indication that high human use is affecting this fully protected reserve,” DLNR said.

The Molokini Marine Life Conservation District, established in 1977 as a highly unique offshore islet, established rules in 1995 to limit commercial permits in an expiration system system designed to prevent future uncontrolled growth. Current permits number 40, DLNR said.

Many commercial tour operators support House Bill 1133, introduced by Maui County Reps. Angus McKelvey, Lynn DeCoite, Troy Hashimoto and Tina Wildberger, and Senate Bill 1403, introduced by Maui County Sens. Rosalyn Baker, J. Kalani English and Gilbert Keith-Agaran, which would cap permits at 40 and allow 50 percent, or 20, in the area at any given time. Both bills have have been referred to committees, with current hearing dates not yet scheduled.

DLNR officials have spoken against the bills, preferring the administrative rule process — of which this meeting was a part — to deal with habitat management issues.

“I think it’s important that all stakeholders have a chance to discuss their options,” Coon said after the meeting. “We also want people to recognize it’s not us against them. Too often commercial boaters are characterized against some in the community. No, we are all part of the local community.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.