DLNR meeting to discuss overcrowding at Molokini is Thursday

The Maui News

A meeting to discuss recent studies about overcrowding by commercial tours at the Molokini Crater conservation district and their impacts on habitat, as well as possible administrative rule and management remedies, will be held from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Kihei Community Center.

The informational and scoping gathering is being called by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources, which would propose possible new rules.

The Molokini Marine Life Conservation District attracted more than 360,000 snorkelers and divers last year, a DLNR news release said. The conservation district was first established in 1977, recognizing Molokini as a unique offshore islet with a healthy and intact coral reef ecosystem.

The rules that were established for the conservation district have not been seriously reviewed and adjusted for nearly 25 years, DLNR said. In 1995, rules were amended to create a limited commercial permit system designed to prevent future uncontrolled growth by commercial tour companies.

The DLNR division currently is looking to update the rules to address current crowding concerns, to ensure fair and equitable use by all boaters and to amend other rules as necessary, the news release said.

A 2010 social carrying-capacity study found that more than 60 percent of all Molokini visitors felt crowded when too many boats were in the crater. At that time, visitor numbers were about 300,000 per year and numbers have grown to 360,000 visitors annually.

A reef predator movement study in 2016 found that 50 percent of omilu (a key nearshore reef predator) were displaced outside of the shallow crater into deeper water when the number of boats exceeded 12, DLNR 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 the protected reserve, the DLNR said.

The DLNR division currently is working with permitted Molokini commercial operators to explore how to best address these concerns while minimizing impacts to their tour operations.

Tour operators, concerned about limits of possibly no more than 12 boats in the crater at a time, have taken their case to the state Legislature. House Bill 1133 calls for no more than 40 permits, and limits access to Molokini to no more than 20 permit-holders at a time.

The measure, which was passed by the state House, was referred to the Senate Commerce and Consumer Protection and Health, Water and Land and Ways and Means committees Friday.

In testimony before the Senate Water and Land Committee on March 11, DLNR Chairwoman Suzanne Case said the department opposes the measure and prefers to handle the issues of overcrowding and habitat management at the crater through the administrative rule process.