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There’s a long cultural tradition of night fishing in Hawaii.
Famously it was a Hawaiian man named Moapu, casting heavy fishing lines in the moonlight along the shore of Kauai, who first spotted the ship of Captain James Cook.
In recent years, no place on Oahu has fought so tenaciously to maintain the right of nighttime access to fishing as the residents who live near Oneula Beach Park in Ewa Beach, also known as Hau Bush. It’s a beach with a splendid shoreline, with sweeping views that stretch across the island, all the way to Waikiki and Diamond Head.
Back in the 1950s and 1960s, it was an idyllic place for families to gather to surf, fish during the day and at night, catching the kala and palani once found in such abundance, grilling it there for a communal meal, and then camping overnight to get up with the sun the next day.
Oneula, which means Red Sand in Hawaiian, has long been a place to get away from it all. But over the years, it also turned into a magnet for crime, drugs and homelessness.
The park has never had closing hours, which allows ocean-lovers to come and go around the clock. Over the years, and until recently, that 24-hour access has been jealously guarded by local residents, particularly Native Hawaiians.
For decades, people who opposed new rules restricting night access to the beach wrestled with people who believed that the restriction was essential to make the beach park, particularly on the mauka side, safer and cleaner.
But now, according to many residents and Ewa Neighborhood Board members, it has become increasingly evident that night closure is necessary so police would be better able to crack down on lawlessness and irresponsible practices. The topic has come up at every board meeting since January, and public consensus toward instituting closure hours is growing, they say, partly as a result of changing demographics.
“Something needs to be done,” said Mitchell Tynanes, chairman of the Ewa Neighborhood Board, who is part Hawaiian. “It’s like the wild wild West.”
Honolulu council member Kymberly Pine has been leading an effort to draw the community together to discuss the situation in public meetings, which have resulted in a group consensus to support night closure at the park. Once the city can be sure that the site is secure, it will be easier to provide new and better amenities there, she said.
“I just want to make it like it was decades ago: Drug free, crime free, vandalism free,” she said in a recent interview. “It was a safe place to be.”
In emailed statements, both the Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation and the Honolulu Police Department said they support night closure.
“This would help reduce the number of complaints and reports of illegal activity at night, the most common being alcohol and drug use, loud noise from parties, illegal dumping and illegal camping,” said HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu. “Generally speaking, closures have been an effective tool in reducing crime and complaints in the parks at night.”
There’s a long history of problems at the 30-acre park.
Oneula Beach Park first became a city property in the 1970s after the City and County of Honolulu bought the land from the Campbell Estate. Its nickname was Hau Bush because of the once-plentiful shade-producing hau trees that grew throughout the park.
Soon after it was established, the park began deteriorating. Drug dealers sold their wares openly in the parking lot and their customers dropped used hypodermic needles into the soft white sand. Drunken four-wheelers drove in the grass, destroying the irrigation system. The road and parking lots became filled with potholes, making it treacherous to drive into the park.
The park became a notorious dumping ground — for old car parts, abandoned refrigerators, tires, electronic equipment, patio doors, industrial solvents. And even worse.
“In the 1980s, you could dump a body there and know it would be a while before they’d find it,” Tynanes recalled. “Police didn’t want to go in because they would wreck their vehicles.”
Gangs ruled the park; a chop shop operated openly. Improvements, such as new restroom areas, were destroyed. By 1987, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin called Oneula Oahu’s most-vandalized park.
And also one of the most violent.
In 2007, a 36-year-old man was injured in a machete attack during a brawl. In 2008, a man arrested at the park in connection with a home invasion was found dead after an execution-style slaying, and in 2011, three men were stabbed on a single night. Early this month, on June 2, a 15-year-old was stabbed there.
“A lot of people go there knowing that officers can’t see if they are doing anything illegal, drinking, smoking, parking on the grass,” said HPD Ofc. Roland Pagan of District 8, at a neighborhood board meeting last year.
Some city officials were run off. According to HPD’s Pagan, a resident caretaker who lived at the park was assaulted and decided to retire.
Pine said she was told some city parks employees became fearful of working there after two of them were assaulted.
More recently the biggest problems have come from the homeless encampments. On a recent summer afternoon, numerous makeshift homesites were visible, including one guarded by a vigilant pitbull.
Local community groups have led an effort to remove the trash. Volunteers from 808 Cleanups, Ewa Beach Weed & Seed, Ewa Beach Lions Club, the Ewa Beach Surf Club and the Ewa Beach Little League hauled some 29,000 pounds of rubbish out of the park between February 2018 and February 2019. But each month, more stuff is deposited at the park.
Over the years, Ewa Beach residents have deliberated whether shutting the park down at night would make it easier for police to enforce the law and eject troublemakers.
The two sides were at war with each other. Some residents, and particularly the newcomers who moved into the new residential developments in the area, wanted the park shut at night.
But many local people adamantly opposed that effort.
In 2007, for example, the neighborhood board passed a resolution calling for the park to be closed from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., which board members said would permit police officers to enforce laws more easily, discourage homeless people from occupying the park and allow the city to make needed improvements and repairs while reducing the risk of vandalism. The effort was renewed in 2015, according to news reports.
But old-timers, many of them Hawaiians, vehemently fought the idea every time because it would interfere with them coming and going at night.
The debate has gone on for years, becoming a “very touchy subject” in Ewa Beach, said board member Lynn Robinson-Onderko.
“It’s so so sensitive, highly emotional,” because people wanted it to be as accessible as ever, she said.
Tynanes said ease of access is hard to give up.
“You can drive right up to the beach, reverse your car and cast your pole out,” he said. “You are right at the water’s edge.”
But now more people, including many Native Hawaiians, see things differently, he said.
“A lot of the vocal community members have passed away or are elderly,” Tynanes said. “And the younger ones see the beach needs to be cleaned up, but they don’t want to lose their identity.”
In a recent interview, board member Penelope Parnes, also a surfer, explained that it doesn’t seem fair to regular park users who take care of the area and follow the law that they are being penalized for other people’s conduct.
“These are people who are using the park as intended and have been for generations and who are doing nothing wrong,” she said. “It’s unfair, obviously. But it’s gotten to the point that we have realized we can’t have control over the negative elements without making some changes.”
Tynanes said he hopes they will be able to negotiate a plan for the park that will allow fishermen to hike in to the beach while their cars are parked nearby.
“It won’t inhibit people from fishing, but just from vehicles going into the park,” he said.
Throughout Ewa Beach, but particularly at Oneula Beach Park, this issue is on people’s minds.
On a recent summer afternoon, Vivan Ahsam, who regularly brings her extended family with her to the beach, where they fish and grill what they catch, said she has reluctantly come to the conclusion that something needs to change.
“It’s a fine line,” she said, “but with as much physical violence as is happening here, something needs to be done.”
She accepts the idea that the park’s operating hours might change but she is hopeful the police will distinguish between criminals and people who are out enjoying themselves with their families, especially if they find the fish have shown up.
She imagines herself at 10 p.m., telling a police officer, “Wow, they just started biting!”
And she says she is confident they will make an exception to their hours, in her case. She’d be okay with that.
There’s still no timeline for closing the park at night. Pine plans to hold one more town hall meeting to let people talk about the issue.
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