LIHUE — A heated exchange between an opponent of the humpback whale sanctuary expansion plan and a federal regulator who’s championing it illustrates just how raucous the public hearings on Kauai were this week.
Malia Chow, sanctuary superintendent for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said the altercation she had with fisherman Greg Holzman in Kilauea made her feel so unsafe she reported it to her supervisor and asked for increased security at the two remaining meetings. It also served as a perfect example as to why some sanctuary proponents told her they were afraid to testify publicly.
Holzman, however, said it was Chow who was the aggressor.
“I do regret the whole situation,” Chow said. “I regret that tensions were so high that it is getting personal.”
The clash happened before the start of the first meeting Monday outside the Kilauea School cafeteria.
Chow approached three opponents of the new management plan for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary who had set up a table outside the cafeteria. They were distributing opposition pamphlets with suggested talking points.
Chow told the men to pack up their table. The building was being leased by the federal government for the purpose of a public hearing, she said, and outside vendors were not permitted to be there.
While accounts of the encounter differ, neither side said it was amicable.
Holzman, a commercial fisherman from Kekaha who was working the table, said Chow got in his face and yelled harshly at him to set up his table elsewhere.
Holzman said he questioned the validity of Chow’s authority to force him to move the table. He said he was taken aback by her response, which he described as uncharacteristically combative in nature.
“I said, ‘What are you gonna do, hit me?’” Holzman said. “And she said, ‘No, hit me. I want you to hit me.’ She was trying to get me arrested.”
When asked by a reporter Wednesday whether she asked Holzman to hit her, Chow said, “I said that? Yeah. He said the same thing. You have to understand in that exchange there is such anger towards me.”
Asked again if she told Holzman to hit her, “I did not say that,” Chow said.
On Thursday, Chow again changed her answer: “To be really honest, in the heat of the moment, I don’t know who said what. I do know that he was so angry with me.”
Chow said Holzman holds her personally responsible for the sanctuary proposal with which he disagrees. She said he is trying to oust her from her job at the helm of the sanctuary. And she said he just plain doesn’t like her.
Holzman said it’s not personal.
“Someone needs to be held accountable and if it’s not Malia Chow then it needs to be someone above her because someone needs to be held accountable for these mistakes in this plan,” he said. “This was supposed to be a community-based plan and it wasn’t based on community input at all.”
Chow said the incident was one of several over the course of the three days of testimony during which she and members of her staff did not feel safe. She said she reported her exchange with Holzman to her supervisor, Pacific Islands Regional Director for the National Marine Sanctuaries Allen Tom, and asked for protection for her and her staff at the remaining meetings.
“I let my emotions take over,” she said. “In that moment, I felt very obligated to make sure he understood that he couldn’t take over a meeting.”
Dave Stewart, 59, of Hanalei, said he saw the whole thing.
“I thought she was a tita from Waianae,” he said of Chow’s behavior. “She definitely lost it.”
“She was literally in his face with her chest puffed out and her finger in his face,” he said. “Her nose was maybe two inches away from his nose. We were pretty much in shock. We didn’t expect that kind of anger.”
Stewart had been passing out the opposition literature with Holzman. He said Holzman remained calm during the exchange, but it was clear that the two did not see eye-to-eye on issues relating to the sanctuary.
As for whether Chow asked Holzman to hit her, Stewart said: “I don’t remember hearing that. I know she said something, but I can’t lie, I didn’t hear her say that. I did hear him say, ‘Are you gonna hit me?’
“It was pretty intense, it made three grown men put the table between us and her, I’ll tell you that,” he said.
Chow said she finds it hard to believe three men could have been intimidated by her.
“While I may be small and may be half their size, the fact that these guys feel intimidated by me is quite amusing,” Chow said. “I mean, really. It’s comical.”
Blowback from the public was not unexpected by sanctuary staffers who led the public hearings this week in Kilauea, Waimea and Lihue, as well as a private meeting on Niihau. They pre-emptively notified police about the meetings, saying there was potential for them to get out of control. Chow said she received at least a dozen emails from sanctuary supporters who said they were too intimidated to give public comment in such a contentious atmosphere. Extra NOAA officials served as parking lot escorts for people at the final meeting in Lihue.
Anne Walton, the sanctuary’s program analyst, said the anger that dominated the public hearings is par for the course on Kauai — although not on the other islands — when any major change is proposed.
“I think people think that’s how you get heard,” Walton said. “The loudest and the most angry get heard, but there are many other voices and points of view that get lost.”
It was one of the biggest reasons Chow said the Kauai public hearings were ineffective.
“I feel like we failed in trying to have a fair public process,” Chow said. “Instead there was a lot of intimidation.”