Kealakekua Bay closed to kayakers Wednesday morning with little fanfare.
Department of Land and Natural Resources Chairman William Aila was on Hawaii Island to oversee the closure, and he spent the morning talking with residents about the reasoning behind the decision.
“It looks like the word got out and people are obeying,” Aila said.
The indefinite closure came after more than a decade of conflicting uses and illegal kayak vendors hanging out at the bay, renting kayaks to tourists but not reporting their earnings. There had been little or no enforcement by the state. Aila said drug activity at the bay, people disrespecting the sacred sites at Kaawaloa — across the bay from Napoopoo — and people swimming with dolphins were also concerns the department considered before announcing the closure. The decision was not based, at all, Aila said, on the death of an out-of-state teenager on a kayaking and camping tour at the bay in 2011.
“We were discussing this possibility more than a year back, at this very pavilion,” Aila said.
Aloha Kayak Co. owner Iwa Kalua said he remembered officials discussing that option. Kalua said as a Native Hawaiian, he supports the department’s decision to close the bay, although a closure longer than 30 days will severely harm the legal kayak vendors who have been permitted to operate in the bay.
“The land and ocean resources should come before the users,” Kalua said. “There’s a big number of people who don’t care.”
Kalua said he encountered those kinds of people every day, people who either thought they were circumventing DLNR’s rules prohibiting landing at the Captain Cook Monument by tying their kayaks to tree branches or rocks, then trampling on the reef to walk in to shore.
A few Big Island residents at the bay Wednesday morning declined to comment about the situation on the record.
Aila said he’s not sure whether DLNR will seek to find a means to convert the illegal kayak vendors into legal business owners. He said the illegal vendors could easily earn $50,000 a year apiece, a figure on which they are not taxed and from which the DLNR receives no fees. He said he’s getting mixed stories from Kealakekua residents and kayak vendors on how the original permits were awarded several years ago. Some people say other vendors were told to apply for the permits, but never did. Other people say a process to apply was about to be set up, then officials had a closed-door meeting and opted to only award four permits.
Aila said he needs to get the truth about that situation before deciding how to proceed on permits for new rental companies.
He declined to provide details about how long DLNR will keep the closure in place, or what enforcement activities will look like once it reopens.
“Our plan is to be as adaptive as (the people doing illegal activities) are,” Aila said.
Aila has heard the comments from West Hawaii residents questioning DLNR not stationing an employee at the park to enforce the kayaking rules. The failure to do so comes down to funding and training, Aila said. A park ranger isn’t the same as a Division of Ocean Conservation and Resource Enforcement officer, Aila said, and a ranger wouldn’t be authorized to ticket someone for breaking the rules. Regardless, the department has unsuccessfully been asking for more funding to increase its enforcement presence, Aila said.
Kalua said he would prefer to see the department just hire a gatekeeper for the parking lot.
“If you can’t get by the gate, you won’t be able to get in the water to break the rules,” Kalua said. “That we see as one way to fix the issue.”