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Council seeks provisions for Hanauma Bay park’s protection

  • CRAIG T. KOJIMA / MAY 19
                                Hanauma Bay has had a chance to recover from years of overuse after COVID-19 forced the park’s closure in March.

    CRAIG T. KOJIMA / MAY 19

    Hanauma Bay has had a chance to recover from years of overuse after COVID-19 forced the park’s closure in March.

Two measures — one that’s going through the Honolulu City Council and another that’s already been approved — could promote the recovery of Hanauma Bay’s marine ecosystem even once visitors are allowed back in.

About 3,000 people used to visit the popular beach park every day, but it’s been nearly empty since Mayor Kirk Caldwell closed it on March 18 to curb the spread of the then-nascent COVID-19 outbreak.

In a May report, scientists from the University of Hawaii’s Coral Reef Ecology Lab said the beach’s water became nearly 50% clearer since closing because of COVID-19, which suggests the beach has been recovering from constant human activity.

Nathan Serota, spokesman for Honolulu’s Department of Parks and Recreation, said in an email Wednesday that the water is now 64% clearer than it was on days that the beach was open to the public before COVID-19.

A bill and resolution going through City Council could help continue that recovery.

Bill 44, which would increase entrance fees for tourists, and the recently approved Resolution 20-207, which urges the city to set up a reservation system to enter the beach, make up a two-pronged approach to ensure that Hanauma Bay’s ecosystem can continue to recover once the public is welcomed back.

Serota said that the city “is taking a look at how to make our management of Hanauma Bay more sustainable so we can better balance the conservation efforts with the recreation needs of the community.”

The initial version of Bill 44 increased the entrance fee for nonresidents to $10 per person from $7.50, and parking fees for nonresidents were raised to $3 per vehicle, up from $1.

Hawaii residents would continue to pay $1 per vehicle and have access to the beach for free.

But the most recent version of the bill, which the Council approved Wednesday, would raise the nonresident fee to an even higher $12 per person.

DPR Director Michele Nekota offered her support for the bill and told the Council that an increase in entrance fees would help offset a department plan to limit the number of daily visitors to half what it was before COVID-19.

Serota later explained that the increased entry fees would go toward the maintenance of Hanauma Bay, while a “reservation system is a possible way to set that (visitor) limit.”

On Sept. 9, Honolulu City Council members unanimously approved Resolution 20-207, which calls on the city’s administration to establish a visitor reservation system with several purposes — to more accurately count as well as limit the number of visitors to Hanauma Bay under the new COVID-19 reality.

“This will help from a public health standpoint,” said Lisa Bishop, president of Friends of Hanauma Bay, which supported the resolution. “Instead of just opening the gate and letting people come in as they want, this will help meter the number of people that are in at a given time. It will also help from an environmental standpoint.”

Bishop, who supports keeping Hanauma Bay closed through the end of the year, said the reservation system should be a useful tool for the city, and that places like Waikiki Aquarium have implemented one during the pandemic.

With current social distancing guidelines, not as many people can fit into the room used to view a mandatory film prior to entering the preserve, she said. Also, a reservation system can keep better track of the number of visitors to the bay — including early mornings or evenings — when the cash register is closed.

It’s also critical, Bishop said, that the department sit down with stakeholder groups, residents, and Friends of Hanauma Bay to determine how it would be set up fairly. A tour company, for instance, should not be able to block out 100 reservations in a row.

“It’s clear,” said Bishop, referring to the water during a visit in May. “I stood on the beach, and I cried. It was so beautiful. You don’t have all the sand mixed up in the water, kicked up by people, and you can actually see the fish.”

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