Few patrol vast area to protect Isle waters
• Photo gallery: Guarding Hawaii Waters
By Christie Wilson
Advertiser Staff Writer
MA'ALAEA, Maui — A team of four state conservation and resource enforcement officers waited to board a 36-foot rigid-hull inflatable vessel as it eased off a trailer into the brown, soupy water of the Ma'alaea Small Boat Harbor for a routine patrol off the coast of South Maui.
As part of their wide-ranging duties, the officers are responsible for enforcing Hawai'i's fishing and recreational boating laws and protecting reefs and other marine resources extending from the coastline to three miles out to sea and from the surface down to the ocean floor.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources' Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement has 14 officers and three field supervisors to cover the island of Maui and its surrounding waters 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The branch also is responsible for patrolling restricted waters around the island of Kaho'olawe.
Statewide, there are approximately 120 conservation officers divided among six islands.
Maui branch chief Randy Awo said that on average his staff is able to conduct only eight marine patrols a month, focusing on heavily used areas.
"Recreational and commercial fishing are increasing and there are more people entering the water and more people fishing. It does have an impact on what's left," he said.
As his crew untied the lines securing the DOCARE vessel to the dock, a yellow helicopter buzzed overhead. Aboard were three conservation officers headed toward West Maui on a marijuana eradication mission. Seven miles away in Kahului, two more of Awo's men were working with county police to remove homeless campers from state land at the airport.
The day's assignments illustrated the varied nature of DOCARE's responsibilities and the difficulty in providing adequate personnel to police more than 750 miles of coastline, 23,000 acres of inland surface water, 3 million acres of state ocean waters, 410,000 acres of coral reef around the main Hawaiian Islands, 2 million acres of conservation land and 1.2 million acres of state-owned lands.
"We've got a huge area to cover and not enough guys," Awo said. "So much of what we do you just have to be on it. Just to maintain a presence is very challenging. It's not easy."
Forty years ago when Awo's father worked as a state fish and game warden on O'ahu, "it was just fishing and hunting," Awo said. Since then, DOCARE's jurisdiction has expanded to include homeland security, crime prevention and investigations in parks and boat harbors, marijuana eradication, boating safety, hunter education, and enforcement of laws involving state lands, water resources, state and county parks, historic and cultural sites, forest reserves, coastal zones, conservation districts, and wildlife on land and in the water.
Ten minutes after leaving Ma'alaea Harbor, the DOCARE vessel pulled up off Mai Poina 'Oe Ia'u Beach Park in North Kihei, where a pod of false killer whales had been lingering close to shore for several days. The rarely seen marine mammals usually inhabit the deep ocean, so their presence in the shallows could mean they were in distress. (Several days later, an elderly member of the pod died.)
Awo radioed a member of the federal Marine Mammal Stranding Network who was monitoring the whales from shore. The conservation officers checked to make sure kayakers, stand-up paddlers and others kept their distance from the whales, which are protected by state and federal law.
In addition to state duties, DOCARE has a cooperative agreement with NOAA Fisheries to enforce federal laws protecting endangered species, marine mammals, marine sanctuaries and other ocean resources. NOAA Fisheries' Office of Law Enforcement has its own staffing issues, with only a dozen officers assigned to the region that includes Hawai'i, American Samoa, Guam and the Northern Marianas.
As part of the joint enforcement agreement, DOCARE received $300,000 from NOAA Fisheries in the 2008 federal fiscal year. The money was used for training, boat repairs, new computers, a dozen personal watercraft, a vessel for the O'ahu branch, and the 36-foot boat used to patrol Maui's waters.
DOCARE also gets money from a similar agreement with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration for marijuana eradication and investigations. DEA funding this year will total $475,000 and will be used for helicopter flights, training, overtime and equipment.
Although some have criticized DOCARE's involvement in drug investigations as yet another distraction from resource protection, Awo said marijuana eradication "is important to keep forests safe." It is estimated that 75 percent of Hawai'i's marijuana crop is grown on state land.
"At one time, growers controlled the forests. It was scary. It became dangerous for the public to use the forests for recreational use," Awo said.
Farther up the coast, off Halama Street, near Kalama Park, the DOCARE patrol spotted a red-and-white dive flag attached to a float towed by a spearfisherman. Boat captain Brooks Tamaye brought the vessel to a stop while Patrick Rivera and John De Jesus mustered their snorkeling gear. The two slid into the water and calmly swam toward the diver 200 yards away. They spent about 10 minutes talking to the man before returning to the boat.
It's closed season for lobster and there are minimum size restrictions on octopus and the most popular fish species, but the spearfisherman has a legal catch of two mamo.
"He was a little surprised to see us, but he was cooperative," Rivera said.
The DOCARE patrol made other stops to survey fishermen on kayaks. Awo said that in addition to checking for illegal catches, the encounters give officers a chance to issue reminders about boating safety and fishing regulations.
"When they are talking to these people there may be no violations but there's a discussion that's unfolding that's educational," Awo said. "It's challenging for fishermen. There are new laws being created every year and sometimes they haven't caught up with the laws."
DOCARE officers also are responsible for visiting stores that sell fish to ensure they are keeping proper records and are buying fish only from sources with a commercial marine license.
Awo said the Maui branch has seen a recent spike in fishing violations that is probably tied to the economic recession.
"We're guessing that people are trying to make ends meet. It's not unusual when the economy goes bad to see more people go out and gather more," he said.
Kihei residents Tom Reyes and Vince Affinito were relaxing in their 14-foot fishing boat when the DOCARE vessel approached for an inspection. Matt Yamamoto asked the pair for vessel registration documents and checked for life vests, fire extinguishers and flares. He also asked to look in their cooler for fish. The fishermen said they hooked three small moano but threw them back.
Reyes said he didn't mind the intrusion.
"It's no problem. We know we're legal. It would be nice to be able to show them some fish," he chuckled.
DOCARE officers are not allowed to check coolers, boat holds, bags or other containers for illegal catches without probable cause. A proposed law that would've required licensed commercial fishers to open containers for inspection upon request never made it out of committee during this year's Legislature, where fishing interests have a strong voice.
Cruising past Keawakapu, the DOCARE officers recognized a catamaran anchored in the sand near shore. The same catamaran was the subject of complaints about nighttime noise and loud music a couple weeks earlier, when it was moored in another location for more than a month without a permit from DLNR's Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation. At that time, DOCARE officers told the boat owner that it was illegal to anchor in the same spot for more than 72 hours without a permit.
Yamamoto questioned the occupants of the catamaran and learned that they still didn't have a permit. However, since the enforcement officers didn't know how long the vessel has been anchored at its new location, they could only remind the owner of the boating rules.
Turning seaward, the DOCARE vessels sped toward Molokini Shoal, one of 11 marine life conservation districts in the state. Fishing or otherwise taking any marine life, sand or coral is prohibited at Molokini and fish feeding is banned. The crescent-shaped islet three miles off Maui's southwestern coast also is a seabird sanctuary, so in addition to enforcing boating and aquatic resource rules, the DOCARE officers planned to be on the watch for violations of wildlife regulations.
At midday the half-day snorkeling cruises had already left to return to Maui, leaving about a dozen tour boats and a 68-foot luxury sailing yacht secured to day-use moorings in the crater cove. As snorkelers splashed about on neon-colored foam noodles, Rivera and De Jesus went underwater again to make sure the vessels were properly tied up.
There are 30 day-use moorings at Molokini open to commercial and recreational vessels. The moorings are designed to prevent coral damage from anchors and anchor chains scraping the ocean bottom. Awo said that, for the most part, tour boat operators are conscientious about following marine conservation district rules because they know their businesses depend on healthy reefs.
But there have been notable exceptions.
DOCARE officers investigated three recent coral damage cases off South Maui that resulted in nearly $1 million in actual or proposed fines. In one case, a snorkel tour boat illegally dropped anchor in the 'Ahihi-Kina'u Natural Area Reserve, breaking off at least 11 stony coral heads and chipping or fracturing other coral along a 34-yard stretch of sea floor.
In another incident yet to be resolved, the anchor and chain from a tour catamaran scoured a 3,000-square-foot area in Makena Bay, killing or injuring more than 500 coral colonies.
At Molokini, the sinking of a 32-foot tour boat in rough seas and subsequent salvage efforts killed or injured an estimated 870 coral colonies in a 2,067-square-foot area.
A GOOD DAY
With unusually calm waters, none of the tour vessels was in danger of sinking, so the DOCARE patrol headed back toward Maui and farther south to 'Ahihi-Kina'u. The 2,045-acre reserve's three-mile coast is the only stretch of Maui shoreline that is totally protected, where no fishing, collecting of marine life or motorized boating is allowed. Two popular snorkeling coves and other portions of the reserve were placed off-limits to the public in August for a two-year period because of concerns about recreational overuse.
DOCARE is responsible for both the ocean and land portions of the reserve, but the agency has been getting help monitoring the area from a park ranger program started three years ago.
All was quiet at 'Ahihi-Kina'u, and Tamaye steered the DOCARE vessel around for the voyage back to Ma'alaea, but not before spotting a pod of spinner dolphins frolicking at the surface about 100 yards ahead. After a couple more boat checks along the way, the enforcement team ended its patrol at the harbor. Awo deemed the day a success.
"Despite the fact we have a relatively small crew, our guys are pretty active and pretty visible within our hunting and fishing areas, and pretty active in the amount of citations and investigations that are conducted, as well as education efforts. There is a deterrent effect in place," Awo said.
In 2008, the Maui branch alone conducted 1,757 investigations in response to calls from the public or incidents observed by officers on patrol. Awo's staff also issued 1,597 citations — more than half the citations issued by DOCARE statewide — and made 72 arrests.
With limited personnel, community outreach and partnerships are important in extending DOCARE's reach. Awo and his officers regularly attend public meetings and community events, often on their own time, and have taken the initiative to host talk-story sessions as issues arise affecting Maui's natural, cultural and historic resources.
"This is a job that requires support from the community. It's not a situation where we can do it alone. We place a very high value on reaching out to the community," Awo said.
As a Native Hawaiian and 21-year DOCARE veteran, Awo said he "is very comfortable with the work I do." But he also is sensitive to the potential conflict between native and subsistence gathering rights and the need to protect Hawai'i's declining natural resources.
"I do believe in the mission of DLNR, but having said that, when it comes to gathering rights for Hawaiians or non-Hawaiians, I recognize when you're gathering resources it's not a blank check to do whatever you please," he said. "Gathering rights has kuleana (responsibility) attached to it and part of our job is to make sure that when you are gathering resources and exercising that right that you are also meeting your kuleana responsibilities."
Awo was named DLNR's 2009 manager of the year for his efforts to increase "the community service and partnership aspects of DOCARE's operations, based on his firm belief that everyone has a responsibility to help care for Hawai'i's natural and cultural resources," according to the award citation.
"Under Branch Chief Awo's leadership, DOCARE has developed an awesome reputation and unprecedented community support in Maui County."