Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve, a premiere snorkeling destination, reopened to the public on Wednesday with a new set of rules aimed at striking a better balance between the park’s value as a boon for tourism dollars and its fragile importance as a conservation site.

The county park, which had been closed since March 16, now has a daily visitor limit of 720 people. In 2019, the average number of daily visitors to the park was about 3,000.

Environmental degradation might also be quelled by the fact that the park will now be closed two days a week — Mondays and Tuesdays — instead of one.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell speaks at press conference on reopening Hanauma Nature Preserve.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell speaks during a press conference announcing the reopening of the Hanauma Nature Reserve. The forced absence of tourists at Hanauma Bay helped researchers understand the impact of large numbers of people on the natural world. Instead of about 3,000 daily visitors, park managers will now cap daily admissions at 720 people. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

And while Hawaii residents can still get in for free, nonresidents must pay a steeper price for admission: a $3 parking fee and a $12 entry fee. Children 12 years and younger can still enter without charge.

There are also new coronavirus-related restrictions. Face masks must be worn at all times inside the park and visitors must bring their own snorkel gear. Many facilities — the gift shop, education center, food concessions, snorkel equipment rental and locker rentals — remain closed.

Across Hawaii, concerns over the impact of recreational activities such as swimming, diving and snorkeling on fragile marine ecosystems have increased over the decades with the astonishing growth of the state’s tourism industry.

But it’s been difficult to study the relationship between the mobs of people recreating in nearshore waters and the various forms of environmental degradation that scientists are documenting, especially when there are so many other factors at play — rising ocean temperatures, coral bleaching and stormwater runoff, to name a few.

In this respect, the coronavirus pandemic gifted biologists a historic opportunity to calculate the human-imposed degradation to the park’s diverse marine life.

In August, researchers reported that they found larger fish, more monk seal activity and clearer water at Hanauma Bay during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Previous research at the site suggests that human disturbance contributes to coral breakage, as well as the loss of entire coral colonies.

Researchers also suspect that recreational activity at the bay impacts fish feeding behaviors.

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