Starting Wednesday, Kealakekua Bay is closed for business to kayaks, standup paddlers and boogie boarders.
When the bay reopens, kayakers, even locals using their own kayaks, will need a permit to enter the bay.
The Department of Land and Natural Resources announced an indefinite moratorium for the bay, prohibiting any vessels from launching from Napoopoo Pier or Kaawaloa Flats. Drift-in vessels and the Fair Winds tours will be allowed to continue to operate in the bay, a DLNR official said.
DLNR Chairman William Aila cited the bay’s cultural and historical significance in announcing the closure, but kayak tour operators said the real impetus behind the moratorium was a decision to shut down illegal vendors at Napoopoo Pier.
“The only way they can do this (they think) is closing the bay down to all small craft,” Adventures in Paradise owner Geoff Hand said Wednesday. “According to the chairman, they’re going to have DOCARE officers watching the bay for X number of months.”
DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward said Aila was out of the office Wednesday. She declined to comment on the department’s enforcement plans, but said penalties would adhere to departmental policies.
Gov. Neil Abercrombie transferred management of the bay to the Parks Division, Deputy Director Curt Cottrell said. He said he could not say exactly how long the moratorium would last, in part because officials didn’t want to give illegal vendors that information. Cottrell said the drift-in vessels would get special use permits to allow them in the bay.
The department decided to include standup paddleboards and boogie boards in the moratorium because they were concerned illegal kayak vendors would try renting those items at the bay. Cottrell said the department wasn’t as worried about surfboards, because officials didn’t envision tourists wanting to paddle on a surfboard across the bay.
Snorkeling and swimming will be allowed, department officials said. The trail to Kaawaloa will remain open, as well.
Cottrell said yearlong permits will be available online for Hawaii residents for a nominal fee. The department has not yet set that fee.
The department has appreciated the licensed tour operators, Cottrell said, and they don’t want to hurt them. The land board did reissue three permits, with a start date to be determined. But the illegal activity is damaging the bay and Kaawaloa Flats, he said.
“One of our most sacred and historical places has been abused,” Cottrell said.
Attempts to reach companies that lead snorkeling tours in the bay were unsuccessful Wednesday. Hand said he attended the last two Board of Land and Natural Resources meetings and despite what the DLNR spokeswoman said, the board’s intent was to allow vessels with U.S. Coast Guard permits to continue operating.
DLNR officials told him and other kayak tour vendors the closure would last one to three months, Hand said. When the bay opens again, the legally permitted vendors will get renewed permits, he added.
“DOCARE has let this go for seven years,” Hand said. “We’re a little bit skeptical of them being the watchdogs.”
Hand only has permits to operate at Kealakekua and Puako bays. He has petitioned the Division of Boating and Ocean Resources for permission add tours at Kailua Bay or out of Honokohau Harbor.
“Three months might put me out of business,” Hand said. “One month, we might be able to survive.”