More than a dozen people have died on commercial tours in Hawaii since 2012, including four people in a 14-month period on snorkeling trips with Pacific Whale Foundation, which boats customers to Molokini Crater off the coast of Maui.

Earlier this year, as part of our “Dying For Vacation” series that explored why more visitors die in Hawaii than other vacation destinations, we looked into commercial tour operators as one component of the broader issue.

We wanted to find out what the state does to regulate this burgeoning industry, so in December I emailed the communications officers at the Department of Land and Natural Resources to start gathering some basic information. Four months later, I’ve received repeated assurances that information is coming — but nothing else.

Not So Public

I initially asked how many permits have been issued for commercial recreational operations in the state’s small boat harbors, facilities and near-shore waters.

I also asked how much money the state has collected in fees for such permits, how many citations have been issued and the amount of fines that have been paid.

And, using the department’s own words from a January 2015 news release, I asked how the permit information has been used to inform management decisions about activities happening in state waters.

Deborah Ward, the department’s spokeswoman, told me Dec. 31 that she’d forward my questions to the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation for a response. Still waiting.

The Pacific Whale Foundation store at Maalaea Harbor.
The Pacific Whale Foundation store at Maalaea Harbor. The nonprofit tour company has had a number of deaths on its tours in recent years. Marina Riker/Civil Beat

For years, the DLNR only regulated commercial activity on state ocean waters if it originated from a state harbor or launch facility under DOBOR’s jurisdiction, or if it involved thrill craft, parasailing, water sledding or high-speed boating in ocean recreation management areas, such as Waikiki and Maunalua Bay. The areas are designated by specific boundaries and include restricted zones.

But that changed in 2014 when the state land board adopted new rules that the department says enabled it to track and regulate commercial operators on state ocean waters regardless of where they launch from.

After not hearing anything for a week, I followed up Jan. 6 and renewed my request for responses to the questions I’d submitted earlier and added a new one: How many permits have been revoked?

In at least one instance, the state has revoked a tour company’s permit. The Board of Land and Natural Resources pulled the permit for Hawaii Pack and Paddle in 2014 after 15-year-old Tyler Madoff died on a kayaking trip on the Big Island.

Ward responded Jan. 12, saying she sent the questions to the appropriate divisions and was told it may take some time to gather the information from all the island district offices.

So I waited.

We went forward with the commercial tour operators story two days later, gathering what information we could from state websites and interviews with tour operators, surviving family members and others. It was the fourth part in the series.

On Jan. 21, I followed up with Ward to ask for an ETA on responses to the initial questions.

Silence ensued.

I followed up again Feb. 5, reminding Ward and her boss, Dan Dennison, that it’d been several weeks now.

Ward replied later that day, saying, “I have some info from boating divisions I will prep to send to you.”

With an anxious eye on my inbox, I waited. And waited. And started covering the 2016 legislative session, but tried to remain mindful of the often deployed tactic of delaying a response until it’s either no longer relevant or the reporter loses interest.

I had lost a similar three-month battle for public information with the DLNR in 2013. Then, we wanted to examine just how much of a problem the cost of public records is in Hawaii. So that summer, we asked dozens of state and county agencies to tell us what they had charged for public records requests in the previous two years. DLNR was one of the only agencies that failed to provide the information, despite assurances from Ward and others that they would.

On March 28, I asked again about the questions related to commercial tour operators that I had initially posed in December. Ward said, “I’ll follow up tomorrow. Have some info.”

But … nothing since then. Nothing from Ward, Dennison, DOBOR or anyone else in the department.

And so continues the wait for this public information about how the state regulates commercial tours.

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