Kealakekua Bay, a microcosm of Hawaii


A look at Kealakekua Bay is to see a microcosm of Hawaii.

Here is a place endowed with physical beauty, one that is elemental in the history of the state and a place steeped in cultural importance. It also is the embodiment of government in Hawaii, its waters a protected marine life conservation district, its coastal lands (or at least a good part there of) are a state park.

This single location is Hawaii, in essence.

It represents everything good about this state, and likewise manages to easily showcase so much that is wrong.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, accompanied by Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s executive order, last week announced it would kapu the bay to float craft activities effective Jan. 2. The action closed the bay to all activities of kayaks, standup paddleboards and canoes. (It also set the stage for any Native Hawaiian seeking to paddle out and fish outside the bay to challenge its legality in light of the Hawaii Supreme Court Public Access Shoreline Hawaii ruling that protected traditional practices in Hawaii, even across private property.)

While the DLNR said the closure was not in response to a suit filed by the family of an East Coast tourist who met his death at the bay, the history of activities there points otherwise. DLNR Chairman William Aila said closing the bay was to protect cultural and historical significance, while commercial kayak vendors, illegal and permitted, claimed the motive was to cull the illegal operators from Napoopoo Pier.

Aila’s citation of the bay’s cultural and historical significance sets no precedent. The state has for decades been confronted with problems at the bay: in the late 1980s, the question of moorings in the bay, conflicting uses and fishing issues, by the early 1990s, the federally prohibited attraction of swimming with the dolphins drew attention away from the still-simmering dispute over moorings. By the mid-1990s, parking shortages and kayak conflicts had edged out all others, as vendors crowded the bay and were the focus of state and county government attention — and to large degree inaction.

Move forward 10 years to 2005 and a change from a Democrat administration to the Republican leadership of Gov. Linda Lingle, and little changed. Then DLNR Chairman Peter Young, addressing problems at the bay, said, “We recognize that state parks have been neglected in the past, but we are committed to improving the parks now.”

The so-called get serious conservatives accomplished little more than a decade of predecessors: Nipomo landing was chained off and any type of vessel landing at the Captain Cook Monument was prohibited and a permit system for kayak vendors established, as well as a means of prosecution for those who intentionally swim with the dolphins.

Despite some promising discussion of “rangers” at Kealakekua Bay and Kekaha Kai state parks, however, the rules were enacted without ensuing meaningful enforcement — a systemic problem within Hawaii’s state and county governments, which somehow have yet learn to enforce adequately rules they enact.

And so the problems persisted in what many over the years have labeled a free-for-all.

Until now. Since the state failed to enforce adequately its rules, (got sued) and could no longer ignore a very obvious and contentious problem, it took the action of least accountability but most economy: It closed the bay to float craft to all, “for now.”

Step aside from the immediate (if 20 years can be called immediate) problem of commercial conflicts and look instead at what truly is at issue: Kealakekua Bay is a priceless resource, culturally, historically, recreationally and biologically. It has been degraded, disused, misused, misconceived, ill conceived and finally ignored.

Where the state should have fulfilled its long ago plans and developed a state natural and historical park of which we could be proud and enjoy peacefully, we are left with an example of how to neglect, misuse and degrade a resource — to the detriment of all.

That Hawaii has for so many years been guilty of this behavior is indicative of the state’s inability to protect or develop (as a park) its resources, politics aside, as both GOP and Democratic leadership are equally culpable.

Yes, the park is closed to float craft as the DLNR cobbles together another plan that will fail to address a greater ill. Once it reopens, if nearly a quarter century history is any indication, we can likely expect the problems to persist, without enforcement, and a beautiful bay and coastal area that could be a showcase will remain an embarrassment to the state and people of Hawaii.

rflickinger@westhawaiitoday.com