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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 9, 2002

State seeking permanent shark warnings for Maui

By James Gonser
Advertiser Staff Writer

After two shark attacks at Olowalu beach in West Maui in the past year and a half, the state wants to put up the first permanent signs in Hawai'i warning swimmers about the potential danger.

The state land board has scheduled a public briefing on the proposal today.

Although there are an average of three to four shark incidents a year in the Islands— the most recent was a March 25 attack on Kaua'i — state officials say it is the large number of tourists snorkeling at Olowalu that necessitates permanent warnings.

But some snorkel and scuba operators and the Pacific Whale Foundation oppose the signs, saying the risk of a shark attack doesn't appear to be higher there than elsewhere and more research is needed before the signs go up.

Olowalu has been the site of three shark attacks in the past 11 years. State policy is to post temporary shark-sighting signs after an attack and to remove them within a few days.

"The interest here is to give people the information they need," said Gil Coloma-Agaran, chairman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. "For a lot of locals on Maui, the area has a certain reputation which might be due to the black tip sharks, which are not really a problem as far as biting. There have been three incidents in the last 10 years and for visitors especially, they may not know that. This looks like a fairly inviting place to do a little snorkeling."

Public meeting

• What: The state Board of Land and Natural Resources will discuss installing permanent shark warning signs at Olowalu Beach on Maui.

• When: 4 p.m. today

• Where: Room 132, Kalanimoku Building, 1151 Punchbowl St., Honolulu

Randy Honebrink, state Shark Task Force spokesman, said last month that permanent shark warning signs would not be installed at Olowalu because of liability concerns. Coloma-Agaran says Honebrink misspoke.

The most recent Olowalu shark attack occurred New Year's Day, when Thomas Holmes, 35, of Los Angeles was bitten on the buttocks while snorkeling about 100 yards offshore.

Henrietta Musselwhite, 56, of Geyserville, Calif., survived bites to her upper and lower back while snorkeling a half-mile offshore on Oct. 18, 2000.

And on Nov. 26, 1991, swimmer Martha Joy Morrell, 41, of Maui, was fatally mauled by a tiger shark in front of her oceanfront home in Olowalu. When Morrell was killed, there was a dead whale in the water that attracted sharks, said Dwayne Meadows, director of research for the Pacific Whale Foundation.

Today, to protect swimmers, the state would close a beach when a whale carcass is present.

Discounting the Morrell case, "you're left with two incidents over the last 10 years and we are not sure that is really abnormal at that location," said Meadows. "If you are going to put up signs, it should be based on some evidence that there is a higher risk than normal. Otherwise, put signs up that there are sharks in the ocean, but do it everywhere."

Coloma-Agaran said the signs have been ordered, but it is up to the state land board to decide whether they will go up. Honebrink will make the presentation.

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com.