State considers rules to manage manta ray dive sites

The majestic manta rays off Hawaii Island’s Kona coast have become a major attraction for visitors and local residents.

“I’ve done the manta ray night dives myself and I think it’s a treasure that we have just in that area that people should definitely come and enjoy,” said Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-Kailua-Kona, Holualoa).

But that’s part of the problem. The activity has boomed over the past 25 years. Keller Laros, a long-time manta ray advocate and researcher, says the number of operations has exploded.

“In 1991, when we started doing it on a regular basis, it was one boat maybe a couple of times a week,” he said. “By 1993, it had gone to four boats or five boats… Now, we regularly get over 15 boats, sometimes over 20 boats (with) literally 200 people in the water.”

“We’ve heard reports of having more than 20 boats and that’s in addition to people who might swim in from shore, do a shore dive or kayak over and now stand up paddle boards as well,” Rep. Lowen said.

Rep. Lowen says an accident is inevitable. It’s one of the reasons she introduced legislation urging the Dept. of Land and Natural Resources to adopt rules to better manage specific dive sites.

Related Link: Read HCR170 in its entirety

DLNR director William Aila says the administrative rule making process, which includes public hearings, generally takes more than a year.

He says this particular issue involves two divisions of the DLNR — the number of boats anchored in an area falls under Boating, and what’s potentially happening to the mantas themselves falls under Aquatic Resources.

But he agrees, “it’s not a good situation to have that many people in the ocean at night.”

Laros estimates 40,000-50,000 people are diving with manta rays off Kona every year. He says something needs to be done soon before a manta is injured or, even worse, someone is killed.

“Whatever is best for the environment, whatever is best for the manta rays and whatever is best for the industry needs to be done,” Laros said.

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