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Hundreds of jobs in peril

KEKAHA — Several Kaua‘i tour operators say they may be forced to shut down after a bill aiming to reduce the number of commercial use boating permits passed the state Legislature last month.

The legislation, House Bill 1090, would allow the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to reduce commercial boating operations throughout the state by canceling permits and reissuing them to various set limits. The DLNR says the bill would help manage overuse at some harbors due to concerns of increasing environmental impacts.

“This was primarily done to address the numerous complaints being received by the Legislature and department regarding the over commercialization of the state’s near shore waters and public facilities,” said the DLNR Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation in a statement.

The DLNR says the problem was caused by over-issuing permits, after the department issued more permits than allowed under Hawai‘i Administrative Rules.

According to the DLNR’s statement, the department set limits at launching ramps in 2014, but “there was a run on permits” before the rules were finalized.

“The department did not have the authority to deny the issuance of commercial use permits unless it was specified in rule.” As a result, “the department could not deny the issuance of the permits,” and the “proposed limits were quickly exceeded,” the department said.

A total of 23 launching ramps throughout the state have a maximum number of commercial permits, with limits ranging from zero to 15, according to Hawai‘i Code R. 13-231-67.

The set limit for the Kikiaoloa Small Boat Harbor in Kekaha is 10 permits, an area where tour operators say the DLNR has issued at least 25.

If HB 1090 is enacted, Kikiaola operators could stand to lose around 15 permits, and the maximum of 10 permits would be reissued to operators using a seniority-based system.

‘Doesn’t feel fair’

Married couple Jessie and Nick Croft are one of many Kikiaola operators who say they are at risk of losing their business. The Crofts started Explore Kaua‘i Scuba in 2015 after purchasing a permit for Kikiaola through a transfer from another boat owner.

Jessie Croft said she first learned about HB 1090 on May 19, just a couple of weeks after the bill had passed the Legislature.

“This is the first day I haven’t been crying myself to sleep,” she said in an interview with The Garden Island last week.

The husband and wife team are the scuba company’s only two employees, taking small groups of six people or fewer out on tours and dives.

“We’re not a real big business. But we have a ton of repeat customers that come out here every year to dive with us. And we’re getting our name out there,” said Jessie Croft, adding that they were excited to have been featured in the travel app “Kauai Revealed” earlier this year.

In November 2022, they took out a $200,000 loan to upgrade from a raft to a 20-foot boat.

“Now, we have all that debt to pay off,” she said, noting that they had only recently started making a small profit.

As a smaller, newer company, Croft said she and her husband would lose their business if permits are reissued on a seniority-based system.

“I hate how they word it. It’s like, ‘We’re just not going to renew this permit.’ But what’s really happening is they’re just literally taking our business,” she said.

“There are worse things in the world. But it’s just when you put everything you have into something, and it can just be taken in a second, is just insane. It just doesn’t feel fair.”

Candice Lecroix is a captain and manager at Na Pali Experience, a larger boat business that also operates tours out of Kikiaoloa.

“Most of (the operators) will have to shut down or be downsized to the point where they’re going to have to let go of the majority of their employees,” she said.

“We’re looking at over 100 people who will be unemployed if this bill is signed in this way,” said Lecroix.

Born and raised in Kekaha, she has been working on boats since age 17.

“The people who choose to do this will make this their life. They love that area more than anyone, and are so passionate about it,” she said.

Lecroix also pointed to a lack of jobs available to people on the island.

“There’s no careers here for local people to stay, and it’s just a huge industry that employs a lot of people on the westside and actually provides with a living wage,” she said.

‘Should be concerned’

A joint Instagram post by Napali Experience and its sister company, Napali Pirates, asks the public for help in stopping HB 1090.

The post states that the Ocean Tourism Coalition, a 501 (C) (6) corporation composed of owners of ocean tourism companies, introduced HB 1090 in collaboration with the DLNR.

But Tim Lyons, the executive director of the OTC, said social media statements have incorrectly portrayed the OTC as the driving force behind the DLNR’s bill.

“We did not introduce the bill,” said Lyons in an interview with The Garden Island. “We don’t want the bill, period.”

OTC President James Coon submitted written testimony asking that HB 1090 be passed in its current form, but Lyons clarified that the organization was only supporting a seniority-based method over a lottery system for reissuing permits.

Lyons said the OTC was “up against the wall” to come to an agreement with some legislators after successfully shutting down previous versions of the bill and speaking out against its companion Senate Bill 1080.

“A lot of legislators were telling us during the legislative session that ‘You guys have managed to get out of the bill for three years. But guess what, something’s gotta go,’” he said. “Our position was if something has to move, seniority would be far better than an auction or a lottery.”

The DLNR’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation said in its statement that it “will work to come up with a plan to work with all affected commercial operators nationwide” if HB 1090 is signed into law. The statement does not provide any further detail on how the department would work with operators.

The OTC recently released its own statement, saying the bill is an attempt for the DLNR to “solve a problem of their own creation.”

“Even though the department has responded by saying, ‘We’re going to try to take care of those people,’ I don’t know what they think they’re going to do. I don’t know how they’re going to take care of them. And if I was (a tour operator), I would not feel any relief with that statement,” said Lyons. “People should be concerned.”

HB 1090 currently sits on the governor’s desk, where Gov. Josh Green has until July 11 to veto, sign or let the bill become law without his signature.

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Emma Grunwald, reporter, can be reached 808-652-0638 or egrunwald@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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