State lease agreements typically contain a provision that give the state a portion of any increased revenue on a site. Some raised concerns over the arrangement.

The Honolulu City Council is moving toward approval of a major facelift and refurbishment of a popular marine life entertainment center on a spectacular land parcel on eastern Oahu.

The city’s zoning committee gave a green light to a resolution granting a special management area permit that will allow redevelopment of Sea Life Park Hawaii, a marine mammal park, bird sanctuary and aquarium first built in 1964.

But council members also raised questions in the hearing on Wednesday about whether the state Department of Land and Natural Resources is profiting from its ownership of the underlying property, formerly crown lands that were ceded to the United States and then to the state government following Hawaii’s annexation  in 1898.

Animals from the former Coconut Island Laboratory were transferred to Sea Life Park. (Alicia Lou/Civil Beat/2022)

Sea Life Park operates under a sublease from Hawaii Pacific University Oceanic Institute, which in turn holds the master lease from DLNR. Hawaii Pacific is a private university.

Council member Esther Kiaaina who represents the Waimanalo district, the neighborhood closest to the park, said she was “excited” about the project but questioned whether it was appropriate for the Oceanic Institute or DLNR to be making money through their association with a for-profit firm, Sea Life Park.

“Oh my god, they might be making money,” she said. “These are public lands.”

Kiaaina said she would take her questions to DLNR.

She told Sea Life Park executives that it would be better for them if their lease was direct with DLNR, rather than with an intermediary. The sublease between HPU and Sea Life Park will be up for renewal in five years.

“I love your educational activities as well as what you provide for people, for kamaaina and visitors as well as working with the community but the fact is you still are a commercial activity,” Kiaaina said.

Council member Calvin Say, chair of the Committee on Zoning and Planning and former speaker of Hawaii’s House of Representatives said that the state’s lease agreements typically contain a provision that gives the state a portion of any increased revenue on a site.

In an email a spokesman for DLNR told Civil Beat that the agency “does not have any direct relationship with Sea Life Park,” adding that its relationship was with HPU, “who subleases a portion of the property to Sea Life Park.”

A spokesman for Hawaii Pacific University said university officials were unavailable for comment.

Valerie King, Sea Life Park’s general manager, told council members that she did not think much could be done to change the situation because HPU’s lease of the DLNR land extends for another 45 years.

The Oceanic Institute merged with HPU in 2014.

Sea Life Park is a popular venue for visitors and locals alike. It also hosts a nightly luau that is an attraction for visitors from Waikiki who arrive on tour buses.

But animal rights supporters who oppose living creatures being held in captivity have long criticized conditions in places like Sea Life Park. Supporters of zoos and marine parks say that giving people contact with wild animals helps humans become more protective of the environment.

Current Footprint Would Be Unchanged

Sea Life Park rehabilitates hundreds of injured native seabirds every year and has released more than 17,000 baby sea turtles into the sea, helping preserve them from extinction. It is the only active breeding colony for green sea turtles, according to Sea Life Park officials.

No one raised animal care issues at the city council meeting Wednesday; the project drew unanimous support.

Sea Life Park officials made a presentation on their plans to the nearby Waimanalo Neighborhood Board in August. Some residents were skeptical about whether the redevelopment would cause the park to consume more water or cause environmental damage to the site but likewise did not express reservations about animals kept in captivity.

Some concerns about the treatment of the animals at Sea Life Park and their habitats were raised in June at the Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board in discussing the redevelopment said board chair Roberta Mayer.

Professor Paul Nachtigall, founding director of the Marine Mammals Research Program at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, testified in strong support of the plan. He said that when his whale and dolphin laboratory on Coconut Island closed, the animals were transferred to Sea Life Park, where, he said, they received “excellent care.”

But it takes a lot of money to provide good care to dolphins and whales, he said.

“Sea Life Park is getting old and needs a facelift,” Nachtigall told the council. “This resolution allows for vast improvements to the park and for the habitats of the fish, sea lions and birds and will make the whole place more attractive to everyone. A more attractive place will bring in funds to better care for the animals. A better take at the gate will also help the Windward and Waimanalo economy,” he said.

The proposed improvements include rebuilding the entry lobby with a Polynesian theme, building a climate controlled “Ocean Oddities Indoor Aquarium,” and using thatched-roof hales as part of an educational program that will employ local cultural practitioners and emphasize native Hawaiian history.

The park also plans to refurbish its “Beachboy Lanai” restaurant area to improve the views of the sea lions and dolphin lagoons and out over Manana Island, also known as Rabbit Island.

The redevelopment will not expand the existing building footprint, officials said.

Sea Life Park is owned by the American subsidiary of Parques Reunidos, an international entertainment company based in Madrid, Spain.

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