State regulators have issued too many commercial permits at some harbors. A plan to take some of them back is drawing controversy.

Roughly 25 sightseeing boat tour companies have permits to operate out of Kikiaola Small Boat Harbor, the gateway to the 17-mile Na Pali Coast.

But state regulators almost a decade ago capped the number of permits allowed at the west Kauai harbor at 10.


Correcting this imbalance has eluded the state Department of Land and Natural Resources. And it’s frustrated subsistence fishermen and recreational boaters who’ve struggled to compete for harbor amenities like parking and launch ramps with so many commercial operators. 

“Certain times of day, when all the boats come back, there are 10 boats stacked and waiting out there,” said Cody Kimura, who owns Blue Ocean Adventures, a tour boat company with five permits and 48 employees. “Yeah, it looks ridiculous. At times it looks like a big crowded mess.”

That could change if Gov. Josh Green signs a bill that lawmakers passed this session to create a new process for issuing state ocean recreation commercial use permits — sightseeing boat tours, surf schools, kayaking companies, scuba diving outfits — at harbors and launch ramps statewide.

“This would singlehandedly decimate one of the biggest industries on the west side of Kauai,” said Candice LeCroix, a 32-year-old captain at Na Pali Experience who has worked at Kikiaola Harbor on and off since she was 17. (Courtesy: Na Pali Experience/2023)

If House Bill 1090 becomes law, the DLNR would gain a new tool to address the “run on permits” in places like Kikiaola Harbor where the number of permits issued by the agency exceeds the permit limit, which in most cases was established after a larger number of permits had already been handed out. 

“With the explosion of social media and the amount of tourism coming here, it just blew up,” said Ed Underwood, the state administrator of DLNR’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation. “Our islands are being loved to death. We need to really get a handle on it. Unfortunately, the only way to do it is you’re going to have to reduce the numbers.” 

Shrinking the number of permits, however, means about 15 boat tour companies at Kikiaola could be forced out of business. Dozens of other commercial operators statewide could also lose their permits.

Nick and Jessie Croft are the husband-wife team behind Explore Kauai Scuba, a single vessel business that takes small groups of six or less underwater to swim through lava tubes and observe reef fish. The company would lose its right to operate if the pending legislation is approved. (Courtesy: Explore Kauai Scuba/2023)

Some tour boat operators say they had no warning that their permits were on thin ice. Others have their own ideas about how commercial harbor users could implement new practices to reduce crowding and improve access — without shutting down anybody’s livelihood.

“It would be a financial hit,” said Nathaniel Fisher, a Kekaha native who launched his sightseeing raft tour business Na Pali Experience 12 years ago at age 25. “It would definitely be an emotional hit. And for me, one of the big ones, it would be a complete loss of faith in government.”

Last week Fisher said he purchased a $500,000 boat to add to his company’s fleet. And he’s in escrow on a vacant 2-acre lot where he has plans to store his vessels and offer customer parking away from the harbor.

“Why would I do that, why would I reinvest into my business the way that I have, if I thought it could be taken away from me like this?” Fisher said. “It’s like North Korea or something. I almost can’t believe it.”

Green has until July 11 to approve or veto the bill or let it become law without his signature.

The DLNR limited permits at many of the state’s harbors and launch ramps in 2014 after rampant commercial activity in nearshore waters triggered complaints from subsistence fishermen, surfers and other recreational ocean users who were having to compete with an increasing number of businesses for harbor amenities like parking and launch ramps.

When word got out that a cap on permits was imminent, the department got hit with an influx of applications. And the department approved those applications, even as it was lobbying to reduce permit numbers. 

It wasn’t until the Board of Land and Natural Resources approved a new rule limiting the number of permits in 2014 that the agency stopped issuing permits beyond the new limits. By then, the number of issued permits in certain areas was more than double the permit cap.

The department had initially relied on attrition to whittle down excess permits, Underwood said. But that strategy hasn’t worked.

“All of these companies are basically corporations and they can sell the corporation and the permit goes with the corporation,” he said.

Nathaniel Fisher and Candice LeCroix of Na Pali Experience and Nick Croft of Explore Kauai Scuba met at a fellow tour operator’s boat shop last week to strategize solutions to the problem of overcrowding at Kikiaola Harbor that wouldn’t require people to shutter their businesses. (Brittany Lyte/Civil Beat/2023)

The pending legislation would authorize the DLNR to request business records from the owners of permitted companies in places where the issued permits exceed the cap. The agency would then issue permits based on seniority, starting with companies that have been operating the longest. Once the permit limit is reached, all remaining permits would remain in effect until their one-year expiration date. They would not be reissued after that.

“Otherwise what will happen is we’ll go into an area when we regulate and then we’ll just take everybody’s name, throw it in a hat and then we’ll just pick,” Underwood said. “So you may have just started your business two months ago and somebody else started it 20 years ago but the new business gets it because it’s a lottery. We just didn’t feel that was fair.”

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One of the first areas the division would address, according to Underwood, is the Big Island’s Kahaluu Bay, where Underwood said there are more than a dozen commercial surf schools even though the number of permits is limited to four.

Other problem spots include the boat ramp at the Big Island’s Makako Bay and Kaukalaelae Point, also known as Keauhou Bay, where DOBOR estimates as many as 70 commercial manta ray viewing vessels currently operate, sparking overcrowding and safety concerns. 

The division has proposed rules that would limit these commercial viewing permits to 24. Currently there are no laws or rules that regulate manta ray diving or viewing activities. 

Then there’s Kauai’s Kikiaola Harbor, where roughly 25 permits have been issued despite the 10-permit limit. The harbor is the fastest access point to the Na Pali Coast, an undeveloped nature preserve of fluted emerald green sea cliffs, ancient Hawaiian ruins, native plants and endangered wildlife.

Located 2 miles west of the Waimea River mouth and close to the town of Kekaha, Kauai’s Kikiaola Harbor has been a subject of complaint from residence who say commercial tour boat companies dominate the harbor. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)

State Rep. Luke Evslin said he’s received complaints from subsistence fishermen about too much commercial boat activity at Kikiaola Harbor. And he said the sheer number of boats operating along the Na Pali Coast is beyond tolerable for many in the Kauai community.

But he said he doesn’t support shutting down so many successful local businesses in the manner that’s laid out in the pending bill.

“I don’t think wiping these people out is the answer,” he said.

Several tour boat owners acknowledged that Kikiaola is overcrowded at certain times of day, especially during the summer, and said they would support making operational changes to improve access to launch ramps for everybody. 

Some of their ideas: Require off-site customer check-ins to make getting in and out of the water more efficient. Shut down commercial operations one day a week. Establish a harbor management board with voices from the commercial boating, recreational boating and fishing communities to workshop problems and implement solutions. Require tour boats to adhere to an on-loading and off-loading schedule to avoid crowding and conflict. Ban on-site boat washing for commercial vessels.

“Instead of saying, ‘hey, we’re going to take away these permits,’ why not try and work with us?” Kimura said. “It feels like a lot of decisions got made and we were left out of the conversation. Why not give us a chance to come up with solutions? Anything is better than losing everything.”

Hawaii’s Changing Economy” is supported by a grant from the Hawaii Community Foundation as part of its CHANGE Framework project.

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