The Department of Land and Natural Resources, citing concerns about impacts to Kaawaloa, compliance and under-reporting of commercial activities, as well as worries about public safety, has issued a de facto ban on kayak tours in Kealakekua Bay, starting next year.
However, the department’s own documents show officials denied any such impacts in an exhibit to the Board of Land and Natural Resources. The exhibit was written just two weeks before the department sent letters to three Kona kayak tour companies informing the owners their permits will not be renewed after Dec. 31.
DLNR Chairman William Aila confirmed Friday afternoon the permits would not be renewed, and the department was working on a new, broader management plan for the historically and culturally significant bay. West Hawaii Today unsuccessfully requested information about the new plan from the DLNR’s spokeswoman and Parks Division Deputy Administrator Curt Cottrell.
Aila said they did not respond to the requests because he instructed them not to.
“That plan is not finalized yet,” he said. “I’m not going to comment on any of that. The attorneys are looking at something right now. At the appropriate time, we’ll make the announcement on the overall plan. We’re working on it.”
Aila’s letter to Aloha Kayak, Kona Boys and Adventures in Paradise, the three companies that still have permits for kayak tours in the bay, cites impacts on Kaawaloa’s resources and the overall management situation at Napoopoo Landing, where illegal vendors have been able to operate for years while DLNR officials claim they don’t have the resources to remove them, as reasons not to renew the permits. Those letters were dated Sept. 27.
But just two weeks earlier, Aila’s staff submitted a document to the Board of Land and Natural Resources explaining why the department didn’t need to complete an environmental assessment to revoke a fourth company’s permit. In that document, DLNR officials denied any negative impacts.
“These permits have resulted in no known significant impacts, whether immediate or cumulative, to the natural, environmental (or) cultural resources in the area,” the exhibit said.
Kayak tour groups said they understand, from conversations they’ve had with the department and land board members, the plan includes a “rest period” for the park, similar to the one that closed Kiholo Bay for cleanup and restoration for several months.
A message left with Hawaii Island’s land board representative, Rob Pacheco, was not returned Friday. In an email to the three kayak companies dated Sept. 7, Pacheco said he disagreed with Aila’s decision not to renew the permits Dec. 31.
Iwa Kalua, owner of Aloha Kayak, said DLNR officials told him this summer, just days before a teenager was swept to sea while participating in a kayak tour, they had planned to lock the gate to Napoopoo wharf and give the four kayak companies with permits to operate there keys. That, Kalua said, would keep out people illegally renting and guiding tours across the bay and landing at Kaawaloa.
He said he hasn’t heard anything about that plan since Tyler Madoff’s death.
Aila said he never approved any such agreement.
The department may say it has concerns about public safety, but Kalua said it’s the kayak tour operators who are keeping an eye on the people kayaking in the park on their own.
“We are their extended eyes and ears,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with these issues for 12 years. Now they actually want to do something?”
He questioned how the department would enforce any sort of moratorium on park use.
“They don’t have enough manpower to enforce the area to begin with,” Kalua said. “They’ve already admitted that.”
Geoff Hand, who owns Adventures in Paradise, another tour company permitted to operate in the bay, agreed. If the department really is planning a rest period for the park, and if it has the resources to enforce that, why doesn’t the department just enforce the rules already in place, he asked.
Taking away the company’s permit will mean the end of Hand’s business, he said. The state offers 10 permits a day for kayakers to cross the bay and land on the shoreline, he said. Most tourists don’t bother to get those permits, so Hand doesn’t rent them kayaks. People can kayak in the bay without a permit, as long as they don’t land, he added.
“We get them on the land where DLNR told us,” he said. “We enter and exit where the state says. We’re running under extremely tight protocols.”
Last month, DLNR revoked Hawaii Pack and Paddle’s tour permit, following an investigation into Madoff’s death, which revealed the company allowed tourists into areas DLNR had not permitted and had under-reported how many tourists it took to the park.
Hand took his concerns to Rep. Denny Coffman, D-Keauhou, Captain Cook, earlier this week. Coffman said he doesn’t generally advocate for the Legislature to micromanage state departments, but in this case, he does have concerns he’d like to see DLNR address.
He questioned the department’s claims that companies may be under-reporting how many people they take on tours.
“That’s up to (the department) to manage,” he said. “I don’t understand why we can’t do the right thing here.”