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Commercial tours at Mala Wharf point of contention

Residents say they’re getting pushed out; operators say more parking needed elsewhere

Kayaks rest along the shoreline and boats cruise in and out of the harbor around Mala Wharf and Ramp on Oct. 8. Commercial activity at the wharf has become a point of contention among residents who say that tour operators and their customers are pushing the community out of the places they usually go to fish, dive and surf. Tour operators say they’ve tried to be good neighbors and that the state should look at expanding parking nearby. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

As a veteran waterman with deep roots in Lahaina, Archie Kalepa has long watched the boat and snorkeling tours at Mala Wharf steadily grow.

“Seeing it overrun by commercial activity, it’s impeding the use of the community,” Kalepa said. “And I think that we can come up with conditions or even a solution.”

Kalepa and other West Maui residents say that the rise of tours at Mala Wharf has crowded residents out of the places they go to fish and dive, left them with few parking options and created hazards in the water for fishers and other boaters.

“The excessive commercial activity at Mala Wharf is negatively impacting both the protected traditional and customary practices of Native Hawaiians and the general public, our community, from accessing and utilizing this area, in addition to environmental impacts as well,” Lahaina resident Kai Nishiki told the state Board of Land and Natural Resources last week. “My kanaka maoli children and I frequently surf, fish, dive, go to the beach and do conservation work in this area.”

Nishiki, Kekai Keahi, Na Papa’i Wawae ‘Ulu’ula and Ka Malu O Kahalawai had sought to have a contested case hearing on the renewal of commercial use permits for four tour companies — Extended Horizons, Kaanapali Beach Watercraft Rentals, Noio Charters and Pacific Jet Sports.

Boats use the Mala Wharf and Ramp on Oct. 8.

The board denied the request last week.

“I trust our DOBOR (Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation) staff will continue to work on the community issues at Mala Wharf, but they are not entitled to a contested case hearing,” board member Christopher Yuen said.

DOBOR Administrator Ed Underwood said that the state has not noticed an increase in commercial activity at Mala Wharf.

“There was limited to no commercial activity during the pandemic and now commercial activity has resumed,” he said via email Tuesday.

Underwood added that parking at Mala is open to all on a first-come, first-served basis.

“DOBOR has created additional parking and is actively working with the commercial companies to park their vehicles and their customers’ vehicles off site,” he said.

He explained that DOBOR relocated barriers along the roadway to allow for additional parking, though he wasn’t sure how many additional vehicles could now fit there, as there are no stalls, and vehicles park parallel to the road.

Keahi, who grew up learning to fish and dive in the area, said in written testimony that the tour companies, their employees and customers take up all the available parking.

“The cumulative effect of all these permitted commercial activities is inundating Mala Wharf and taking up all the stalls to the point where just your local everyday recreational fisherman doesn’t have the ability to get out to go fishing,” Keahi said. “It’s completely taken up by commercial activities.”

Nishiki said local fishermen are unable to launch at the ramp “because of the monopolization of commercial trailers in the limited trailer parking area.”

“The parking situation is out of control and makes it almost impossible for locals to even find a stall due to all the tourists and employees of commercial activities inundating the surrounding area,” Nishiki said. “The huge groups of tourists dropped off by the boats to snorkel at Mala Wharf frequently drift into the ingress-egress area for the boats, making it highly dangerous for all.”

In 2014, DOBOR established a limit of 15 permits for Mala Wharf, but since there were 16 operators at the time, state officials grandfathered in the 16th permit and will let the numbers go down to 15 by attrition, Underwood explained.

Erik Stein, owner of Extended Horizons, said that he’s been a member of the Lahaina community for 40 years and has been operating out of Mala Wharf for most of that time.

“We operate five days a week, sometimes a Saturday, but mostly we stay away from Mala on weekends out of deference to the local community because there is a lot of activity down there and it overcrowded,” he told the board last week.

Extended Horizons employs eight people and does one trip a day with up to 11 people under COVID-19 capacity restrictions. Stein said his employees don’t park at Mala Wharf, though the company does have a truck and trailer and meets its clients at the wharf, as it’s been doing for decades. He explained that some of the crowding at Mala is due in part to tour companies getting pushed out of Kaanapali and ending up down at Mala.

“The things that they’re saying about us not being a good steward or neighbors and causing problems is just not accurate,” Stein said. “We have a very small footprint. We’re in and out once a day. We’re respectful. We’re good neighbors.”

Theo King of Pacific Jet Sports and Kaanapali Beach Watercraft Rentals told the board that “limiting commercial customers’ access to parking in the area is not the solution,” but rather expanding parking options, possibly to one of the unused vacant lots in the area.

“Petitioners claim they cannot use the Mala boat launch ramp to send off their boats for traditional and customary fishing, canoe paddling and to conduct nearshore gatherings,” King told the board in written testimony. “I can say for certain that I have witnessed many people utilizing the ramp for all kinds of boating and ocean activities daily. There hasn’t been anyone unable to make use of the Mala ramp.”

Steven Lawless, owner of Noio Charters, said that “we consider ourselves stewards of the ocean,” and that the company helps out in search and rescue operations, reports entangled or injured marine life, removes debris when it can and joins in Mala cleanup events. Like Stein, Lawless said some of the operators around Mala are coming from elsewhere, including Lahaina Harbor, Kaanapali Beach and Maalaea.

“We acknowledge that multiple truck/trailer parking spots are now being used by Ka’anapali Beach CUPs (commercial use permits) that didn’t use to be,” Lawless wrote to the board. “Parking issues could be improved by allowing parking in the dirt lot on the north side of the county property, while also allowing parking once again in the dirt lot behind the bathrooms once the Lahaina Harbor project is completed.”

Past cases — such as the time DOBOR tried to ban commercial vessels on the Hanalei River or Hanalei Bay ocean waters in an attempt to control a proliferation of tourism, a move later deemed unconstitutional — show that “land based activities, such as overcrowded parking lots, cannot be addressed by the regulation of ocean activities,” Underwood wrote in a report to the board.

There are, however, other solutions. Underwood pointed out that a Mala Working Group is being formed to address community concerns, and that DOBOR has spoken with commercial permit holders to ask that their customers not park in the facility. The state also plans to remind the operators that there is a 30-minute time limit to use the loading dock, and that business activities like having customers sign contracts and undergo safety instructions need to take place offsite.

“DOBOR can also make this a condition of the permit and take administrative enforcement action if necessary to ensure compliance,” Underwood said.

Kalepa told the board that some tour operators are “good stewards,” pointing out that one parasailing company takes its boats and trailers back to its place of operation.

“In my mind that’s showing that they’re part of this community because they see that the impacts that it’s having on this area and they’re doing their part,” Kalepa said. “I think that’s what we need to do.”

Kalepa said his priority is “that the community is not left behind.”

“And that currently is what is happening,” he said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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