Niihau protection proposal on pause

LIHUE — The coastal and nearshore areas surrounding the privately-owned island of Niihau may be considered for inclusion in the Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

The state Board of Land and Natural Resources was scheduled to consider a request this week to delegate authority to the Department of Land and Natural Resources for a Memorandum of Agreement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Niihau Ranch, LLC.

The MOA would continue the discussion between the parties about establishing a sanctuary around the land, which would focus on conservation and protection around the island’s waters.

The request was supposed to go the board Friday before it was yanked Wednesday.

The DLNR told The Garden Island Wednesday that it decided to defer the proposal “in order to do some more community outreach before bringing it before the board,” according to Elia Herman, state co-manager of HIHWNMS.

When that community outreach would occur, and whether it will include public meetings on Kauai, is yet to be determined, Herman said.  

Even though the topic has been pushed back, it’s already raising some concerns.

Sen. Ron Kouchi, D-Kauai, Niihau, said Wednesday his concern was that the public process related to the MOA was “deficient,” and he was prepared to submit testimony prior to the deferral announcement.

“There should be some kind of public meeting with all the affected parties in the same room,” he said.

Fishermen, too, have weighed in.

Some are worried that protecting the waters around the island means they’ll lose out on catching fish.

Greg Holzman, a Westside resident who has been fishing off Niihau’s coast for close to 30 years, said the agreement is a “big deal” and that he and other fishermen are worried they could lose fishing rights if such a proposal goes through.

While many Kauai fishermen utilize the waters around Niihau, Holzman said the vast majority do not go on shore or destroy resources.

“Within all the islands, including Niihau, there are a few bad apples,” he wrote in his testimony to the board. “If (DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement) and the Robinsons and the prosecutors would sit down and work out a plan to stop violators we would be better off then (sic) adding the federal government to the mix. The federal sanctuary looks at national interests not local communities as its priority.”

The MOA would “provide a framework for cooperation to aid and promote planning and coordination activities toward the establishment of a national marine sanctuary around the island of Niihau in a manner that appropriately serves the best interest of the conservation and protection goals of the Robinson Family and the people of Niihau and the missions of NOAA and DLNR,” Herman wrote in her request.

Beginning in 1864, the Robinson family, who owns the island, established a long record of preserving the 50 miles of coastline and nearshore marine environment of Niihau, states the agreement.  

“However, new and emerging management challenges, such as invasive species, marine debris, fishery harvest, poaching, monk seal disturbance, enforcement issues, increasing pressure from off-island for natural resource utilization, climate change and natural and human-induced disasters, have created an urgent need to develop a cooperative federal-state-private agreement to commit to working together to create a national marine sanctuary around Niihau,” the MOA reads.

The inclusion of Niihau is “one of several” options being considered by the state to address challenges faced on the island, according to Herman.

Holzman said it isn’t a secret that the Robinson family has been trying to gain control of the waters off Niihau for years.

“Don’t let a private landowner steal resources from the State of Hawaii for their self interests,” he wrote to the board.  

Phone calls to Niihau Ranch were not returned Wednesday.

In addition to considering the areas around Niihau for inclusion in the sanctuary, the MOA would allow parties involved to characterize resources and areas of high value that are of national significance; identify appropriate uses to be allowed, prohibited or managed within the sanctuary; facilitate customary and traditional uses that perpetuate Niihau cultural traditions and practices and develop proposed boundaries and regulations.

Designated in 1992 to protect the endangered humpback whale and its habitat, the HIHWNMS encompasses 1,400 square miles of ocean in the Main Hawaiian Islands.

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