Hawaii residents have until 6 p.m. Friday to submit comments on a controversial proposal to expand areas under federal protection and strengthen rules aimed at protecting humpback whales and other marine life.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been soliciting feedback for the past three months on a draft environmental impact analysis of proposals to expand Hawaii’s existing humpback whale sanctuary and impose tougher rules in areas including Maunalua Bay in heavily populated south Oahu.

Some residents worry the proposal opens the door to overregulation. The DEIS includes four alternatives, including extending the sanctuary boundary in Niihau and the North Shore of Oahu and adding extra regulations in Penguin Bank off of Molokai and Maui Nui. The proposals have inspired heated public meetings in Kauai and protests on Oahu.

Maunalua Bay

Maunalua Bay seen from Koko Head facing Diamond Head.

Richard Wiens/Civil Beat

Some of the loudest criticism is emanating from Hawaii Kai, where NOAA’s push to designate Maunalua Bay as a “special sanctuary management area” faces pushback from business owners.

The Hawaii Kai portion of the bay has been part of the marine sanctuary since 1997 but the proposed designation would add several additional regulations, including prohibitions on discharging material in the water, introducing invasive species and disturbing the sea floor.

That’s ringing alarm bells for Robin Jones, vice president of the Hawaii Kai Marina Association. Jones said the group, which represents three Hawaii Kai shopping centers and about 2,000 commercial operators and residents, only heard about the planned designation last month.

Hawaii Kai

Hawaii Kai is already in the sanctuary, but additional regulations are proposed.

Richard Wiens/Civil Beat

Since then, the group has enlisted consultants to help draft critical testimony, launched a campaign to encourage residents to oppose the plan and hired a lawyer.

“What people don’t understand is the proposal is a good inch-and-a-half thick in terms of all the regulations,” Jones said. “It’s when you start reading the details that then you get the concerns.

“I want to protect the ocean — that’s why we live in Hawaii Kai. But we want to do it in a way that is a balanced way,” she said.

Chief among the association’s concerns is whether the new rules would impede dredging necessary to keep the Hawaii Kai marina from becoming a swamp.

Malia Chow, sanctuary superintendent for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, said that existing dredging permits will be grandfathered in and that NOAA would have the authority to grant permits for dredging to maintain the marina.

But Jones said that discretion is not enough to allay concerns that the regulations could lead to decreased property values in Hawaii Kai.

Jones said many commercial operators are also concerned about the proposed rule against disturbing the sea floor, although there would be exceptions for anchoring vessels in the sand and for commercial fishermen.

A third concern is a proposed prohibition against using explosives, which Jones said could affect events such as a possible Fourth of July fireworks show.

Chow said that if the regulations are adopted, NOAA may still allow fireworks.

“For every prohibition that we put (in the draft environmental impact statement), there is an opportunity to apply for a permit from us,” she said. “We’re not saying you can never do it, but we just want to be sure that it’s done in a responsible way.”

Maunalua Bay Hawaii Kai

Maunalua Bay in Hawaii Kai.

Patti Epler/Civil Beat

She emphasized that the proposed regulations are intended to help NOAA work with the community to restore Maunalua Bay, which is considered the most degraded bay in the state due in part to storm water runoff and sedimentation that’s a byproduct of nearby development.

“The whole system has been thrown out of balance, you no longer have a natural environment,” she said, noting the growth of invasive algae.

She said the proposed regulations are not meant to impede commercial and recreational use, but would prohibit new activities like aquaculture, deep sea mining and a desalinization plant.

Sam Montgomery runs two water sports businesses in the Hawaii Kai marina. He said he supports helping the bay’s environment, but worries NOAA’s proposal goes too far.

“It’s so stringent and so excessive,” he said. “We’re for all the people helping the bay but we just want the bay to stay in our control.”

Chow thinks most people won’t be affected if the changes go into effect, but said that NOAA has received over 10,000 comments on the proposal, including signatures on petitions.

“We’ve really struck a nerve with people,” she said.

Click here to read the draft environmental impact statement.

Click here to submit a comment.

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