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You could still dump aunty’s ashes into Maunalua Bay but there’s debate over whether building a sand castle on the shore would be allowed under a proposed federal management plan.
A few hundred people packed Hahaione Elementary’s cafeteria Tuesday evening for a town hall meeting about the impact of possible new restrictions for the bay that stretches from Diamond Head to Koko Head.
The bay has been part of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary since 1997. Now the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wants to work with the state to add a new layer of protection by making the degraded bay a special sanctuary management area.
The public comment period on the draft management plan and environmental review of the proposal officially closed June 19 but confusion over what the proposed regulations would actually do has persisted. Even the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which co-manages the bay with NOAA, is unclear.
East Honolulu elected officials organized a three-hour discussion with the hope of separating fact from fiction. They brought in Malia Chow, the sanctuary superintendent, and Suzanne Case, the new head of DLNR, to answer questions but the pair hardly made a dent in the room full of people predominantly against the proposal.
Hawaii Kai businessmen, homeowners and others took turns lambasting the proposal and public officials. They feel excluded from the process and fear their ability to use the bay for commercial and recreational purposes is in jeopardy.
“At the end of the day, we all want the same thing,” Chow said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re not going to force something through that nobody’s going to support.”
The crowd smothered many answers with hoots and hollers but when they were listening Chow and Case struggled to find ways to reassure their critics as to what would and would not be allowed under the plan.
Case, only 10 weeks into her new job, stuck to addressing questions about process while Chow remained careful with her words given the squishy language of the proposal.
“What I see around the room is a great deal of energy and passion for Maunalua Bay,” Case said, adding that she would like to see a “side by side comparison” of how the proposal stacks up against existing regulations.
Case is more than familiar with the bay, its challenges and the sanctuary after serving for years as executive director of The Nature Conservancy.
The state has not taken a position on the sanctuary.
Case asked a lot of rhetorical questions at the meeting, such as, “What do we do when the fixes are so complicated and expensive?”
At one point Rep. Gene Ward, who did as good a job as anyone could in moderating the tense meeting, tried to get a clear answer to a question about whether the proposal would prohibit building sand castles on the shore since the sanctuary’s boundaries extend to the highest wash of the waves.
Chow first addressed a separate part of the question asking whether 90 percent of the bay would be off-limits to anchoring.
She wasn’t sure what the exact figure was but said it would depend on how much of the bottom is live substrate and anchors could only be dropped on sandy bottoms.
She went on to explain how mooring buoys have been used in a similar sanctuary in the Florida Keys with much success. A yes or no on the sand castle issue was not given.
Chow said after the meeting that she was so shocked by the insinuation that the feds would want to impose rules that ban people from building sand castles on the beach that she didn’t know how to respond.
“Of course, we’re the federal government and why should they trust us?” she said. “But at the same time, I can’t wait to begin implementing because our actions will speak louder than our words.”
Confusion continued when it came to a question about whether the Hawaii Kai Marina Association, which owns and manages the marina that flows into the bay, would be liable if the discharge from drainage culverts from homes and businesses was found to be harming the reefs or other parts of the bay.
Chow started off answering that question by saying how hard that would be to prove. Not exactly the assurance the crowd was looking for based on the boos that ensued.
She said Wednesday that working with the Environmental Protection Agency would be the best way to address that issue, taking advantage of programs that help minimize stormwater runoff.
When Chow did take questions head on, the crowd often rejected what she said.
A big bone of contention is whether the proposal would limit the ability to dredge the marina. Part of the concern is reduced property values if the waters are no longer navigable and homeowners can’t take their boats out to the ocean.
Chow said the proposal would give NOAA permitting authority for dredging but there is an exception that allows dredging for harbor maintenance. NOAA would still have final say though, which left residents and business owners concerned.
When it comes to scattering cremated remains of the deceased, Chow said she’s checked with attorneys and they agree this would be allowed under an exception for traditional ceremonies and cultural uses. Releasing lei and paper lanterns would similarly be allowed.
But again, because it’s not specifically spelled out in writing, many in the crowd refused to accept her assurances.
“We don’t need our state waters taken over by the federal government,” said Robin Jones, spokeswoman for the marina association.
State Sen. Laura Thielen, who headed the DLNR under Gov. Linda Lingle, said the state needs federal support to restore the bay.
“Maunalua Bay needs help,” she said.
There was broad agreement that the bay does indeed need help. But serious skepticism over what the federal government would bring to the table.
Some of the most significant concerns with the bay’s health, such as overfishing, aren’t addressed in the proposed plan. Chow said the feds have decided to leave fishing issues up to DLNR for state waters.
Chow, who said from at the outset that she’s not the “progenitor of this proposal,” underscored that the draft plan is simply a first step. The next step is the state and feds going through all the public comments and then fine-tuning the plan over the next six months to a year.
“In many ways the dialogue has just begun,” she said. “Nothing we do is going to be done without agreement from the state of Hawaii.”
Maunalua Bay is just one part of NOAA’s overall plan for the sanctuary.
The sanctuary is currently 1,366 square miles. NOAA wants to expand it in five new areas totaling 255 square miles and add three special sanctuary management areas, which is where Maunalua Bay fits in.
Under the proposal, the sanctuary would change from protecting just humpback whales to entire marine ecosystems. Concern about protecting humpbacks was not a focus at the town hall meeting.
It was clear by the end of the meeting that many in the crowd have no intention of backing down from their opposition to any additional federal regulations.
“This doesn’t go away with one meeting,” said Makani Christensen of the Hunting, Farming and Fishing Association. “We just gotta keep at it.”
The marina association and Friends of Maunalua Bay sent out a press release Wednesday trying to build on the momentum from Tuesday evening.
The groups singled out a comment Chow made at the end of the night: “If the community does not want this proposal we need to seriously reconsider our position on this issue.”
Chow said Wednesday that the town hall meeting was hardly a victory for or against the proposal; it was another listening session and discussion on it. While it’s not a numbers game, she said, the comments made on the proposal over the three-month public comment period are much more evenly split.
“We’ve heard them,” she said. “Now’s the time to sit down, get to work and get it done.”