Fishermen and residents say it’s time to reopen the Pohoiki Bay boat ramp to subsistence fishing, cultural practices, recreation and other uses.

A popular boat ramp on Hawaii island is in line to receive $5.4 million for dredging and excavation of volcanic debris left behind from the 2018 eruption of Kilauea Volcano.

The eruption landlocked the Pohoiki boat ramp in Puna, forcing fishermen to drive an hour or more to Hilo to put their boats in the water, a time-consuming and costly process.

Earlier this month, state Sen. Joy San Buenaventura announced that nearly $49 million in funding would be headed to Puna, the district she represents on the windward coast. Of that, $5.4 million will be steered toward rehabilitating the shoreline access to Pohoiki boat ramp.

Although the total price tag for restoring the area to pre-eruption condition is estimated at $40 million, the new capital improvement funds for the boat ramp should qualify the project for federal aid and possible reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, according to a state news release.

Pohoiki Boat Ramp area
The eruption in 2019 filled in Pohoiki Bay, shutting down the boat ramp area in the process. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)

FEMA has not yet committed to reimbursing the state for the boat ramp project, according to a state official and private consultants who spoke during a two-hour virtual meeting last week.

Department of Land and Natural Resources project manager Finn McCall said during the meeting that the Pohoiki Bay work is “completely unprecedented.” There are no examples he or others could find of a boat ramp being cut off by a volcanic eruption and a state agency being asked to deal with the aftermath.

McCall, who works within the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation, said the final timeline and scope of the project will be dictated by the state. FEMA only partially reimburses such projects. It also doesn’t provide up-front cash so the state will need to decide if and when it’ll direct full funding for the restoration and access project.

At the public meeting on Wednesday, several local fishermen pleaded with the project consultants and McCall to move forward with the project.

Pohoiki Bay used to open right into the ocean before the eruption. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2017)

Bunnie Harrington, a fisherman’s wife, said her husband has to spend hundreds of dollars in fuel costs every time he takes his boat to Hilo and that doesn’t include bait and other expenses. There have been times as recently as this month when he’s been caught in life-threatening seas and bad weather that could have been avoided if Pohoiki boat ramp was open to provide a closer exit from the water.

The state last month released a 300-page draft environmental assessment for dredging volcanic debris in the area surrounding the cutoff boat ramp. The plan rules out relocating the ramp to another spot along the coast, which is defined by high sea cliffs, or other more costly remedies such as constructing channels, breakwaters and jetties.

Instead, the plan is to excavate and dredge the black sand, rock and cobble that blocks navigational access to the ocean at Pohoiki. The excavated material – essentially a huge sandbar — would be hauled by trucks to a nearby lava site. The excavated material would be distributed across approximately 35 acres of new lava, according to the environmental study.

A fully funded project could remove about 175,000 cubic yards of volcanic materials over an area of about 11 acres. Future dredging would be needed to maintain access to the boat ramp.

If there aren’t sufficient funds to fully restore the area to pre-eruption conditions, “the proposed action would be modified to dredge the most area that funds allow,” the study says.

A new black sand beach was created by the 2018 Kilauea eruption, blocking off the Pohoiki boat ramp. (Kevin Dayton/Civil Beat/2018)

Some at the meeting expressed concern about the environmental assessment’s preferred alternative in terms of how it would affect some hot ponds created by the 2018 eruption.

The plan envisions the hot ponds being filled in, a prospect that some object to including one woman, identified only as Leslie on the call, who said the ponds are “sacred” and used as a source of relaxation and vitality by locals and visitors alike.

But others said the ponds attract nude bathers, trespassers and litter, and they were concerned about bacterial infections. They look forward to the day the ponds are filled in.

No one from DLNR was available for an interview, according to the agency’s communications staff.

Trevor Vagay, project manager for Limtiaco Consulting Group, the company handling the planning for the boat ramp project, said by email Monday that earlier alternatives for creating access to the boat ramp by excavating channels were determined to not be feasible either because of the high cost or because of the area’s extreme ocean conditions.

“It is unknown how long an excavated channel would last,” Vagay wrote.

At this point, what’s going to happen is a “dredge maintenance project.” Workers will dredge as much as they can based on available funding. What happens down the line will also be based on funding.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Vagay offered slides that showed the final design of the project scheduled for September with dredging and excavation completed in June 2024.

Public comments on the draft environmental assessment can be submitted to or until May 23.

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