A resolution asking the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to adopt stricter rules governing manta ray diving operations moved ahead Monday.
A bill on the same topic stalled earlier in March, after it passed over to the Senate.
Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-Kona, said her resolutions, one for just the House and one drafted as House concurrent resolution, which can cross over to the Senate if the House approves it, has “softer language” than House Bill 1684, and received universal support in testimony before Monday’s hearing before the House Water and Land committee.
The measures are HR 129 and HCR 170.
Lowen said she doesn’t want to stop the popular tours, but with reports of up to 20 boats at a single dive site, as well as people on stand-up paddle boards, swimming and snorkeling into the area, she wants to make sure the activity remains safe.
“DLNR already has the power to do these things,” she said, after the measures passed their last committee hearing. “The resolution draws attention to the problem.”
The House bill required DLNR to implement a permitting system limiting the number of boats that could gather at manta ray sites. The resolutions do not request a specific action, other than consideration of new rules to manage the tours.
Lowen acknowledged that DLNR officials often have said they have a hard time enforcing some of the exiting rules regarding other ocean activities, because of a lack of resources.
“Enforcement is always an issue, but it’s not a good argument to not pass a law that makes sense,” Lowen said, adding the House had included funding in next year’s budget to expand a program that may help DLNR’s enforcement officers. “I’m trying to figure out what we can do to help (the Division of Ocean Conservation and Resource Enforcement) function better. We’re working on it.”
DLNR Chairman William Aila, in written testimony, said he supported the resolutions. He acknowledged the increasing popularity of the manta dives, and said the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation and Division of Aquatic Resources would work with the affected user groups to draft new administrative rules.
Fair Wind Vice President Melynda Dant, in her written testimony, agreed that dive operators need to be involved in the rule making process.
“The manta dive sites bring in millions of dollars to Hawaii Island and the State of Hawaii is currently recognized internationally as one of the world’s top destinations for snorkeling and Scuba diving, therefore warranting better management practices,” Dant said.
She suggested more mooring pins for the Keauhou Bay location.
“When the north site has ‘no shows,’ many of the boaters come down to the south site, Keauhou,” she wrote. “The Keauhou site does not have the open sand area for anchoring, nor as much capacity for vessels as the north site offers.”
Dant outlined some of the behavior that she said could create dangerous situations, including unguided viewers who sometimes touch mantas and who may be swimming in the channel where boaters cannot see them. The department needs to add manta education to the boater education program, she said.
Kona-based Ocean Wings Hawaii Inc. owner Martina Wing said some of the current sites are “over capacity.”
“If the growth goes unchecked, we don’t see a bright future for the activity,” Wing said in her written testimony.