PUNA, Hawaii Island — The Pohoiki boat ramp, which until the recent Kilauea eruption played a key role in supplying a lot of the Big Island’s locally caught fish, is now separated from the ocean by about 14,000 cubic yards of black sand.
Puna’s only boat ramp nearly didn’t survive at all. Lava came within yards of the ramp, and actually covered some of the adjacent Isaac Hale Beach Park, including the lifeguard stands, before stalling in July. The cooling flows now block access to the area except for hikers, and a brand new, sparkling black sand beach has turned the cove by the ramp into a small pond.
A state engineer inspected the area last month, and the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation announced it may be possible to clear a new channel to the intact boat ramp. But Mayor Harry Kim wants the new beach preserved and the whole area turned into a replacement for other recreational areas that disappeared under the lava.
“If it was a first-class pier, there would be a lot of second thought, but it was not,” Kim said. “It was a dangerous one.”
Treacherous waves and currents made entering and exiting the water there tricky even for experienced fishermen, and children playing in the ramp area made an extra hazard.
The opportunity to swim, surf and sunbathe has long been one compensation for living in one of the state’s poorest districts. For residents who’ve lost treasured local swimming spots such as the Kapoho Warm Ponds, the new pond at the old boat ramp may look like Pele’s gift.
But if Kim’s plan goes into effect and another ramp isn’t built elsewhere in the district, it would be bad news for Puna’s fishing community, which for decades has relied on the ramp to access fishing areas. The ramp, though notorious for its tricky currents and vicious waves, was one of the busiest in the state.
“I know a lot of fishermen aren’t fishing right now,” said longtime Puna fishing skipper Melvin Tiogangco. “They can’t pay their bills because they were Pohoiki fishermen.”
Forty-five percent of East Hawaii’s fishermen were based out of Pohoiki, according to Robert Shibata, Seafood Division manager for the Suisan Company, which runs Hilo’s famous fish market.
“We were very dependent on that community for reef fish, pelagic (deep ocean) fish, opihi and limu kohu (a type of edible seaweed),” Shibata said. “For pretty much everything harvestable for market and home use, that was a premiere area.”
After the lava began forcing road closures in the Pohoiki area, those fishermen had to shift their operations either to Hilo, about 30 road miles away, or to Punaluu, more than 60 highway miles to the south — or not go out at all. Shibata said their landings dropped 75 percent.
Tiogangco points out that the extra distance the boats have to travel isn’t just inconvenient and expensive; it’s a safety concern: “It’s a long way if you’re broke down, or if there’s a storm coming.”
To make matters worse, many Puna fishing families have had their homes buried by lava. The loss of both their homes and their livelihoods has been a crippling double blow. And these are more than livelihoods: they’re a way of life. If a prolonged ramp closure forces these families out of the fishing business, their accumulated knowledge and customs may not get passed on.
Leslie Enriquez Rosehill’s family has been living and fishing in Puna for six generations.
“We all fish,” she says. “As a young girl, I was always taught certain rules of gathering. Aware of which fish to catch at different times and what not to catch. Sharing with friends, kupuna and ohana your catch of the day is as natural as breathing. It’s usually the first thing we do — as well as never taking more than you need.”
Tiogangco fished out of Pohoiki for nearly four decades before being sidelined by heart problems, but he’s been thinking about going back to it. The fishing culture rescued him from homelessness and became his “therapy” after he returned from Vietnam at the age of 21. He recalls that after he was discharged, he tried at first to live with his parents, but “I was tearing up my sisters and brothers just being there … I bought a camper and truck, and started camping at Pohoiki. When I got down there they kind of took me under their wing and showed me how to fish.”
Eventually, he bought his own boat.
“There was a lot of aloha in those days,” he says. “If we had the most fish on the boat, we would drop one fish on the dock, and everybody would come with their knives and whoever was on the dock got to take home a big slab of sashimi.”
The hazards of the landing at Pohoiki turned the fishermen into an even more close-knit clan.
“You gotta do your thing, turn around and get out of there because the next wave’s coming,” he says.
“Fishermen had to work together. When you came in, you had to have three or four guys just to hold your boat … The next wave could pick up your boat and toss it over the trailer.”
Even with their cooperative efforts, Tiogangco says, “All my time I’ve been down there, I’ve seen a lot of boats that didn’t make it out. A lot of captains got killed, too.”
Tiogangco and Rosehill favor reopening the ramp where it is.
“I respect Harry Kim and I have nothing bad to say about him,” says Rosehill, but she disagrees with the mayor about Pohoiki. “I feel everyone has different opinions based on where their responsibility lies. My only responsibility is to my kupuna.”
Tiogangco says the entrance to the boat ramp has been dredged before.
“No matter what, it’s going to cost them bucks to make another ramp,” he says. “I feel they should try to open that one up rather than make another one.”
Kim thinks a new ramp could be built at a safer site, perhaps on a lava flow: “You can dig out that lava and make a very protected harbor.”
But a solution to the fishing families’ dilemma doesn’t appear to be coming soon. Kim said he planned to meet with state Department of Land and Natural Resources officials about his plans for Pohoiki, but as of Tuesday, that meeting had not been scheduled.
The DLNR’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation issued a press release last month saying that while the county and the DLNR planned to cooperate on redeveloping Pohoiki, “There are no estimates now of how much it would cost or a time frame for potential work to begin.”
DLNR spokesperson Dan Dennison confirmed that his department had taken no further action on the boat ramp issue since the September engineering assessment, and had not established a timeline for reaching a decision about the ramp’s future.
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Alan D. McNarie has been covering the Big Island's people and issues for various publications for over a quarter century. He's published two novels: "Yeshua" and "The Soul Keys." He lives in Volcano. Email Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org