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New ocean stewardship fund takes effect

KAILUA-KONA, Hawai‘i — A bill passed into law in 2021, which established an ocean stewardship special fund, took effect on Jan. 1.

All operators of commercial vessels, water craft or water sports equipment, who are required to have a commercial operator permit, are now mandated to charge a $1 user fee from each customer for the fund.

The bill, introduced by Oahu Rep. Scott Saiki and signed into law by former Gov. David Ige, listed a broad range of recently documented impacts on coral reefs — including bleaching, vessel groundings, anchoring and mooring, diving activities, poaching, land-based and water-based pollutant discharges — which necessitated creation of the new fund.

The money is to be used by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to develop and carry out marine resource conservation, restoration, enhancement, research, regulatory measures, enforcement actions, educational activities or any other management measures needed to protect marine resources under the jurisdiction of the state.

The funds are also supposed to be used to install, maintain and replace day use mooring buoys and other infrastructure to reduce impacts to the marine ecosystem.

The law stipulates 20 percent of revenue collected from the businesses — plus any funds due to the state from leases of any land, facilities, equipment and other property managed by DLNR and used for or dedicated to the management, research, restoration and enhancement of aquatic resources — shall be payable to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as ceded lands revenues.

Commercial operators are required to pay into the special fund monthly.

Manu Powers owns and operates Sea Quest Hawaii, providing snorkel and manta tours out of Keauhou Bay. She sees this as another obstacle small business owners have to navigate.

“There’s so many questions about why it was implemented. How does the county and state continue to green light development, yet put all these policies in place that are shrinking small business? Small business is the backbone of any community, and they consistently implement policies and procedures that make it more cumbersome and more difficult for us when we are the ones who generating the revenue,” she said.

Powers said the additional fees add paperwork.

“I have to hire someone to do it because we don’t have the time because we are too busy running our business. We end up paying for it in multiple ways,” she said.

She also questioned what the money will specifically be used for.

“We are always happy to pay our taxes, pay our fees and play by the rules, but the state and county need to do their part making sure that money is going back to our industry to make it equitable and provide some sort of guidelines that support those willing to play along with their rules, despite the fact that they are incredibly cumbersome and egregious and unreasonable,” she said.

Powers said there are both federal and private organizations working on ocean sustainability, and she would like to see more specifics on what the money will be used for.

“All of this we are willing to do if we know that this money is being reinvested in sustainability of the industry and specifically how,” she said.

She is worried all of the fees, including the transient accommodation tax, excise tax and user fees that need to be passed on to people visiting the state will price businesses out of the market.

“I wish there was a more sustainable model of regenerative tourism in place, but we are not there yet. By the time we get there, people are going to be throwing in the towel because they can’t afford to live here and can’t afford all of these fees,” she said. “It’s pricing us all out in different ways and in different avenues.”

The law is scheduled to sunset on Jan.1, 2029.

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West Hawai‘i Today reporter Laura Ruminski can be reached at lruminski@westhawaiitoday.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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