of Paaoao Bay. - U.S. Navy PhotoOpponents say Ship-sinking plan creates hazardA
controversial proposal that would scuttle a Cold War-era ammunition freighter offshore of the Big Island, in the sandy bottom seaward of Paaoao Bay, drew strong opposition Friday at a state Department of Land and Natural Resources public hearing.
The hostility toward the West Hawaii Artificial Reef Foundation's plan was as real as the growl in a Rottweiler's throat. Several people vowed to organize and legally challenge it.
"We will fight you," said Teresa Nakama of Kahu O' Kahiko, interrupting WHARF's presentation at the Sheraton Keauhou Bay Resort and Spa.
Out of an approximately 50-member audience, 13 people testified -- eight opposed and five supported the proposal.
WHARF is a nonprofit organization comprised of three West Hawaii men who have an interest in the ocean environment and activities. Since the mid-1970s, they visited Kona, "fell in the love with the island" and eventually moved here. It is their "dream" to have a "world-class wreck diving site," said Rick Decker, WHARF treasurer.
Patrick Cunningham, a commercial operator at Keauhou Bay, shook his head in disbelief. "I can't believe what they are proposing. Another group wants to put more pollutants in the water," he said. "I just heard a gentleman say he moved here because he thought it was beautiful. Has it changed? There was no ship when he first visited here. We have deep, AA pristine waters. Leave them alone."
Cunningham asked who would operate and manage the ship as well as who would assume the liability if the ship is damaged or if pollutants come into the ocean.
Nakama mentioned the Honolulu harbors, which were "filled with pollutants from ships" and "you can't even eat the fish."
"Sinking an old ship constitutes a hazard to navigation and it is virtually impossible to rid these ships absolutely clean of its oils, grease, asbestos and other toxic substances," she said.
Jeff Leicher, Jack's Diving Locker owner, has dove wrecks on Oahu. He acknowledged the Honolulu harbors were polluted, but said those artificial reefs may not be the cause. He also claimed to know people who do eat the fish there.
Before the scuttling can occur, WHARF must raise more than $750,000 for cleaning costs and obtain four permits. The state would own the ship, the Mauna Kea, which is currently moored in Suisan Bay, Calif., with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Maritime Administration. WHARF supports the restriction of commercial and private launching from Keauhou Bay as well as a user fee, which would fund community conservation projects. It also wants to relocate the Kona crabs or have all the crabbers fish the decapods out of the area.
Cunningham reminded the audience that the state does not have the funds or manpower to manage this submerged vessel reef. He claimed the boat ramp at Keauhou Bay reached its capacity long ago and mentioned the parking and bathroom problems.
"What if I don't want to pay a fee? Who is going to stop me? You, Rick? The state?" said Mike Nakachi, Aloha Dive Company owner. "Maybe I am that one percent in the dive industry that doesn't want that wreck. And I love to go diving on wrecks. But in other places. Not here. So go ahead and throw stones at my boat. I can't support this project."
The Mauna Kea would undergo a thorough cleaning that meets standards of the U.S. Coast Guard, Hawaii Department of Health and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"There are all these concerns about toxicity," said Wayne Burger, Jack's Diving Locker instructor. "There are rules and laws to ensure that the ship is cleaned to the utmost degree."
Before deployment, holes at least four feet by four feet will be cut into compartments and decks to promote water circulation, increase light penetration, enhance fish habitation and permit safe diving. To minimize hazards, all doors and hatches will be removed or welded. Mooring buoys will also be permanently installed at the site to provide easy access and prevent future damage from boat anchors.
For several years, WHARF has sought input, raised funds and conducted surveys for a submerged vessel reef. The organization admitted to having trouble contacting fishermen and some cultural groups. It recently submitted a draft Environmental Impact Statement of its project to DLNR, which is still taking written testimony. The EIS can be viewed at http://www.wharfpacific.org
WHARF claims the sinking of the retired 511-foot Mauna Kea has redeeming ecological and economical value.
"It's not just the dive industry that will benefit," Burger said. "The airlines, hotels, restaurants and boat rental industry will benefit as well. It will bring people here and give us money to support infrastructure. This is what this island needs."
The motives for the project were questioned by some.
"Man makes his own destruction," said Lily Kong of Ka Ohana O Kupuna O Kona. "Today, money is the greed of man. We need to take care of what we have now. Why pollute our waters?"
Several people testified that the only real economic benefits are to dive shops and tour charters.
Serving as an artificial reef, the ship would create a new reef habitat for fish and other marine life, increase the island's aquatic tourism industry and reduce pressures on West Hawaii's natural coral reefs. It also would develop a unique platform for academic and research organizations to study marine life, such as fish and other marine species population counts, Decker said.
South of Keauhou Bay, Decker said 90 to 130 feet below the ocean's surface the Mauna Kea will lie on a "flat sandy bottom, void of coral and lava." This location was surveyed, photographed and video taped sporadically. WHARF stated "an artificial reef in this generally unproductive, coral-barren area should have minimal, if any, environmental impact."
State aquatic biologist Bill Walsh dove the proposed site on Jan. 20. In a Division of Aquatic Resources report, he claims the bottom habitat "appears to be suitable for artificial reef deployment," but does not say whether he opposes or supports the project. Underwater, he uncovered a large Kona crab within the first minute of hitting bottom at 120 feet as well as several scallop shells scattered about.
"There is an extensive sand plain extending as far as the eye can see in the vicinity of the drop location. The slope is very shallow and essentially appears flat when you're down there," Walsh said. "While the bottom is sand, showing ripples from long shore currents, it is by no means devoid of life. On the contrary, it appeared to be a very productive sand community undoubtedly with lots of mollusks and crustaceans."
For Nakama, this is no scientific reason or report that states "our pristine ocean is dead with no life."
"Just because you don't see marine life with your naked eyes or all you presently see is just a sandy bottom, and with that you justify you need to put a toxic metal pollutant in our pristine ocean," Nakama said. "Our marine life that thrives in our sandy bottom and lives in cycles. It has taken our pristine ocean many millions of years to shape the sandy areas. The marine life of urchins, mollusk, octopus, flounders, weke and marine plants depends on our sandy bottom and all of these we eat. Let me repeat that, we consume these marine animals for consumption. How dare you poison us?"