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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, February 20, 2005

Tourism altering Wai'anae way of life

By Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Staff Writer

Ocean activities have long been a popular draw for Hawai'i tourists hungry for experiences they can't get in their hometown.

Carl Jellings says sharing Wai'anae Coast waters with tour-boat operators has put fishermen such as himself at the tour operators' mercy. He has been fishing for 30 years and his father fished for 20 years before that. He says some tour-boat operators have been violating a "gentlemen's agreement" not to disrupt schools of akule.

Eugene Tanner • The Honolulu Advertiser

But as such activities increase, so have some residents' concerns about the impact on natural resources and local lifestyles. The Wai'anae Coast is perhaps one of the most prominent areas where the proliferation of commercial activities — primarily dolphin-watching tours — has drawn community concerns.

The concerns include tour operators scaring akule schools away from fishermen and coming too close to surf breaks at Makaha Beach.

"We're at the mercy of these people," said full-time akule fisherman Carl Jellings. "We shouldn't be at the mercy of these people. I've been out there for 30 years. My father was fishing 20 years before me.

"Now we have to spend more money on fuel and more time at sea and go farther down the coastline to catch fish. Nobody knows what's going to happen in 10 years because the fish are being displaced somewhere else."

Tour operators say they are sensitive to the community's concerns and that they too want to preserve ocean resources.

The growth in Hawai'i's tourism industry has already prompted questions about just how many visitors the state can accommodate. In the case of Wai'anae — which has seen more visitors with the expansion of Ko Olina resort — concerns have focused on dolphin-watching tours and a Makua kayaking tour.

"With the advent of Ko Olina and the influx of the visitor industry onto that coastline, we're seeing pressures like a lot of other areas that the state has already seen," said Cynthia Rezentes, Wai'anae Coast Neighborhood Board chairwoman. "It's the type of a conflict that if we don't get a grip on it and try to figure out where our balance is, we're going to lose both industries.

"I know everybody thinks tourism is the end all be all, but there's only so many resources to go around before you start degrading those resources and then where does your tourism industry go? We're not out to cut anybody off. We're out to make sure that the new pressures do not cause our old way of life to disappear nor our resources, which is what everybody comes to look at anyway."

The "Northern Express," a tour boat operated by Dolfun Cruises, sails into Wai'anae Boat Harbor with a group of tourists. With development of Ko Olina, such boats have become more prevalent along the Wai'anae Coast, and many fishermen have complained that the boats leave them with fewer areas to fish.

Advertiser library photo • Jan. 23, 2002

Community members are seeking help from state lawmakers, who — at least at this stage in the session — appear supportive. Measures aimed at limiting the number of commercial activities allowed on the Wai'anae Coast are advancing in the Legislature. A Senate committee has approved a bill calling for a study to determine the type and level of activities appropriate for the Wai'anae Coast.

Senate Majority Leader Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nanakuli, Makaha), said it's too early to tell whether the bills will be successful but that she has noticed more support from lawmakers this year.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources has opposed the bill requiring the study, saying that while the agency supports the measure's intent, a study would be costly and take too long. DLNR is already working to develop a program to mitigate or eliminate ocean recreation user-conflicts as part of its overall coastal policy, said director Peter Young. Young said the Wai'anae Coast and Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island are among the areas the program is focusing on, and that the program also would deal with conflicts statewide relating to surf schools, kayaking, snorkeling and other operations.

Young said one of the program's goals is to determine carrying capacities of activities in various geographic areas. The program has involved meetings with county officials, community members, commercial operators, recreational users and others, he said.

DLNR will look at commercial and recreational ocean use, Young said.

"Many times people automatically will point the finger at a commercial operator, but we want to take a broader view and look at all users," he said.

Dolphin-watching boat tours have become a popular tourist activity on the Wai'anae Coast in the past several years, growing from one tour operator in the mid-1990s to nine today from both the Wai'anae Boat Harbor and Ko Olina Marina, according to Wai'anae harbor agent William Aila. He said fishermen have also complained about kayaking operations off Makua Beach. Aila said there are about seven akule fishing groups and eight 'opelu fishing groups on Wai'anae, each with their own crew. 'Opelu fishermen also complain of the impact from tour boats, said Aila.

Fishermen such as Jellings complain that they have been left with smaller areas to fish because some tour operators have been violating a "gentlemen's agreement" created several years ago and have scattered akule schools. According to the agreement, tour operators are to stay away from shallow areas, where akule gather during the day.

"I've been trying to work this agreement for the last three-plus years and for the most part it's worked, but there are too many times when it doesn't," Aila said. He said that a majority of the violations have been unintentional, and attributed them to boat captains not being educated on the gentlemen's agreement or taking shortcuts to get tourists back to land on time.

"We have two issues here — the user-conflict issue and then the overlying issue of too many commercial permittees doing this kind of activity," said Aila, who said he was speaking as a Wai'anae resident and not as a DLNR employee. "And that's why you need either a moratorium, an EIS (environmental impact study), to determine what the parameters should be. Is that unreasonable for a community to ask for?

"I'm frustrated by DLNR's inability to understand the community's concerns and the conscious effort not to address it," Aila said.

Voice your opinion

House Bill 416 would impose a moratorium on new commercial small-boat harbor permits until an ocean recreation management area is designated and user rules are adopted for the Wai'anae Coast. It is referred to the House Finance Committee. The committee chairman is Rep. Dwight Takamine, D-1st (N. Hilo, Hamakua, N. Kohala), 586-6200, reptakamine@Capitol.hawaii.gov.

Senate Bill 1262 would appropriate money to conduct a baseline study of environmental impacts for the Wai'anae Coast. It is referred to the Ways and Means Committee. The committee chairman is Sen. Brian Taniguchi, D-10th (Manoa, McCully), 586-6460, sentaniguchi@Capitol.hawaii.gov.

Senate Bill 1301 would require the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to consider user conflicts, address environmental concerns, and balance commercial activities along the Wai'anae Coast in issuing permits for commercial ocean activities on the coast. It is referred to the Water, Land and Agriculture Committee. The committee chairman is Sen. Russell Kokubun, D-2nd (S. Hilo, Puna, Ka'u), 586-6760, senkokubun@Capitol.hawaii.gov.

DLNR director Young said: "I'm hoping people will see that in the last couple of years DLNR is taking a more active role and by moving this policy forward and the subsequent discussions involving the community, the community will see that DLNR does care and is working on it. We are listening."

Jellings said he has noticed changes in akule behavior during the past several years.

"Every month of the year I can tell you where the fish should come in," he said. "If it doesn't come in the area that month, I'm going to shrug it off. But if it doesn't come in that area for four years in a row, something is wrong."

Greg Howeth, vice-president of the Maui-based Ocean Tourism Coalition, said the ocean tourism industry is largely based on observing, rather than consuming, resources. He said the coalition, made up of about 300 ocean tourism-related small businesses statewide, is sensitive to the fishermen's concerns and is working on addressing conflicts by educating commercial operators.

But Howeth also said any impacts are from a minority of tour operators and that other non-commercial, recreational boaters also are affecting the area. He said commercial activities usually are perceived negatively when there's a conflict but noted that many local people don't own boats and rely on commercial activities to enjoy the ocean.

"It's easy to jump to the conclusion that it's the commercial people that are the bad guys or the source of the problem when I don't necessarily believe that that's always the case," he said. "Certainly in the case of specifically the Wai'anae Coast and other areas around the state, it's in the commercial operators' best interest to work towards protection of the resource and to ensure its longevity because that's what their businesses are built around."

Shane Griffin, president of Ocean Joy Cruises, which offers snorkeling, whale-watching and dolphin-watching tours on the Wai'anae Coast, said he takes concerns from fishermen and the community seriously and makes sure his captain follows the gentlemen's agreement.

"I'm trying to go along with the wishes of the people who were here first," he said. "I feel bad if we have encroached and I know there have been a couple of complaints ... and both times we have taken it seriously and made corrections. We're very much interested in preserving what's out there."

Richard Holland, executive director for Makua Lani, which runs kayaking tours from Makua Beach, said his group follows a route mapped out by DLNR that was based on an impact survey. DLNR granted Makua Lani an interim permit last year.

Holland said Makua Lani, which caters to Japanese tourists, runs approximately one-hour kayaking tours five times a week that are ecologically and culturally sensitive and that the tours are guided by local men from West O'ahu.

"In my view, there's enough resources for us to share, and we show up at all the meetings and we ask the fishermen and whoever else is out there that we are willing to cooperate," he said.

Jellings emphasized that fishermen are not against tourism and that the gentlemen's agreement was a way to allow both to coexist. But he has become frustrated.

"It's getting worse and we're trying to stop it in its tracks before the only thing you're going to be able to do out there is tourism," he said. "A lot of us don't want to do that. We love what we do. We love to fish."

Rezentes, of the Wai'anae Coast Neighborhood Board, agreed.

"The Wai'anae Coast has been extremely accommodating," she said. "It has just gotten to the point where we don't believe that in this particular case that we can take any more without just severe impacts on our quality of life. So it was time to speak up. It kind of reached a head."

Reach Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 535-2470.