New rule costly for dive companies

LIHUE — Local dive companies say the state Department of Land and Natural Resources cost them tens of thousands of dollars by implementing — prematurely, and with little or no notification — a new rule requiring businesses to obtain permits for commercial shoreline operations.

Mike Hopkins, president and CFO of Aloha Kauai Tours, was running a snorkeling tour Dec. 23 off Lawai Beach when he said DLNR enforcement officers shut him down.

“We lost a lot of business over the holidays,” he said. “(The state) didn’t seem to understand they need to communicate with people.”

Hopkins said he was never given a deadline to obtain the new permit. All together, in between the back-and-forth of being told he couldn’t, then could, continue operating, Hopkins said his company lost four weeks worth of business, estimated at between $20,000 and $30,000.

“I don’t have a problem with paying fees,” he said. “I have a problem with them coming in and stopping us in the middle of a tour.”

Kevin Cram, owner of SNUBA Tours of Kauai, said he was first notified of the new permit requirement in late October. He’s been shut down ever since while trying to sort things out — a process he’s described as frustrating.

“As I went to the state and county people to try and figure out who I needed permission from, nobody knew anything about it,” he said.

Last week, however, DLNR Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation Kauai District Manager Joseph Borden informed Cram in an email that he and other operations had until March 1 to obtain the permit — a permit that was never required previously. After that, anyone operating without one could be cited.

Cram said a better approach would have been for the state to make an official announcement and set a three-month deadline for companies to come into compliance.

Since late October, SNUBA Tours has lost around $15,000 in business, according to Cram. The company started running tours again Tuesday and is working to obtain the necessary permit.

Hopkins said he may be the only company that has been able to get one.

“We have a permit,” he said. “The rest of the gang is scrambling.”

DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward did not respond to The Garden Island’s request for comment or provide details about implementation of the new rule on Monday and Tuesday.

Chairperson William Aila, however, told Hawaii News Now on Sunday that although there is a new rule, the department is not ready to implement the permitting process. He apologized for the confusion.

“They were doing what they thought was their job,” he told the TV news outlet. “We needed to communicate with them that that wasn’t the appropriate time.”

Linda Marsh, owner of Bubbles Below Kauai, said that despite never being notified of the rule change, her dive company was among several shut down at Koloa Landing last week.

“They never contacted us. There was no communication,” she said. “An administration who can’t figure out who they’re administrating to is irresponsible. You can’t expect people to hear it through the grape vine and then have a permit suddenly in place on Christmas weekend.”

Marsh called the incident a miserable failure — one that cost employers business, employees wages, and the state tax revenue.

“Everybody lost,” she said.

Jeannette Auber, owner of Fathom Five Divers, said she remembers being given a piece of paper outlining the state’s intention of permitting shore diving, but there was no deadline for submitting an application. She called the state’s decision to shut businesses down unfair.

“The two weeks around the holidays is the busiest time for tourism on Kauai. I really didn’t understand what they were trying to achieve with that,” she said. 

In just one day of being shut down, Auber said her company lost $3,000. 

“I was just so thankful they retracted it,” she said. “I was looking to lose a lot more if they didn’t retract and give us an extension.”

Auber and Marsh aren’t necessarily against permitting, but oppose permits being location specific, which they reportedly are. In other words, if a company wants to have the option of taking customers to either Koloa Landing or Anini Beach, it must purchase permits for both.

Auber said a general permit covering shore access across the island makes more sense. 

The permits, according to local dive companies, cost $200 per month or 3 percent of a company’s income — whichever is greater. 

Marsh went as far as to question whether the permitting process, as she understands it, won’t create safety hazards. One of the main rules of diving, she said, is that no matter how experienced a person is, they go with someone from the area and obtain local knowledge. 

“Now, divers will only be able to go with a select few, and more people will enter the water unguided,” she said. “We will probably see an increase in diving accidents on the island because of the way it’s been set up.”

The new rule was reportedly signed into law in September by former Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

“An administration who can’t figure out who they’re administrating to is irresponsible. ”

Linda Marsh

Owner of Bubbles Below Kauai

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