Posted on April 19, 2023
Tony Sylva has fished out of Pohoiki Bay in Puna on the Big Island since he was a kid. His two daughters, Ku‘uipo and Kulia, have done the same since before they could walk.
“Pohoiki was like our second home. We went almost everyday,” Sylva wrote in testimony to the Hawai‘i County Council. “On weekends was family day. I would take my kids and their cousins out bottom fishing or run to Kahena buoy for some ahi or mahi mahi.”
But it all changed in 2018, when Kīlauea’s eruption sent lava flowing down the lower East Rift Zone. With the lava came loosened sand, rocks and cobbles down the mountain and all the way to the coastline. A new beach was created. So was a big problem.
The new beach filled in Pohoiki Bay, cutting off Puna’s only boat ramp that provided ocean access for commercial fishing, ocean and volcanic tours, food sustainability and cultural practices.
It’s been five years and no new boat launch areas have been developed to replace the much-needed Pohoiki facilities. The County Council wants that to change.
During its last meeting, councilmembers unanimously adopted a resolution urging the Hawai‘i State Legislature to include as a line item in the state budget for the next two years for $40 million to dredge the beach and restore the 18-foot-wide boat ramp’s ocean access.
It’s the amount recommended by Limtiaco Consulting Group and the preferred option of the community.
The project would require the removal of most of the new beach, or about 215,000 cubic yards of sand and debris deposited by the eruption.
Resolution 91-23 also seeks a commitment from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to fund the project.
“We want our ice box back. We really do,” said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz during the Council’s regular session April 5. “So many folks have fed their families fishing out of Pohoiki’s waters.”
That includes Sylva, who now is forced to launch out of Hilo for four-day fishing trips, spending up to $800 per voyage. When he used the Puna boat ramp, he only had to spend about two to four hours each day, and was able to get to his fishing grounds within minutes. The cost was roughly $250.
Also going up is the cost of maintenance on his boat, which has quadrupled since his trips are so much longer now. He’s also made modifications to his vessel so it can make the long and treacherous trek from Hilo around Cape Kumukahi and back to Pohoiki.
“I no longer can go on single day trips because it is not affordable,” Sylva wrote. “Now, I don’t see my girls for days at a time because I have to make my trips count. My daughters don’t go out on the boat anymore because I don’t trust taking them far out. Hilo doesn’t have the fishing grounds like Pohoiki.”
More than half of the lawai‘a (fishermen) he knows who used to fish out of Pohoiki sold their boats, not being able to make money by launching out of Hilo. Some of their boats can’t make the voyage back to the fishing grounds “we all know and depend on to survive.”
Kierkiewicz said: “Folks are going to lose their livelihoods. We’re not going to be able to access the ocean for a number of things — ocean tourists, commercial services. What if there’s a need to deploy emergency boaters because there’s folks out in distress? This is a critical asset that we have to restore.”
It’s also not just a Puna problem. The lack of an ocean access point at Pohoiki has led to overburdening other areas of the Big Island, including Keaukaha in Hilo.
“They don’t have places to take their keiki to go swimming, fishing, whatever it is [in Puna], and they’re coming into Keaukaha because that’s the closest ocean recreation they can get,” Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy said.
Unfortunately, bills in the State Legislature to fund the boat ramp’s restoration have stalled. One of those measures is House Bill 701, the only Pohoiki-related bill put forth this year. The proposed legislation, which would provide funding to the Hawai‘i Department of Transportation for the dredging project, is sponsored by Big Island lawmaker and Vice Speaker of the House Greggor Ilagan.
The House Committee on Water and Land referred the bill to the House Finance Committee, but it has not moved since Feb. 9, and with less than three weeks left in the 2023 legislative session, it likely won’t.
Hawai‘i Gov. Josh Green, however, included the $40 million for the project in his budget request to legislators.
“Removing the volcanic debris and re-opening the Pohoiki boat ramp is vital to the health and well-being of the Puna community,” says a message on the website of Ilagan’s office. “Re-opening Pohoiki boat ramp remains our office’s top priority.”
Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said it’s unfortunate that some members of the State Legislature don’t understand the importance of the harbor and boat ramp at Pohoiki and what Puna has lost. He added that it is another example of officials making promises to Puna but then ultimately not following through.
“This should not, this cannot, be one of them,” Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder said. “You shouldn’t have to put this resolution forward, honestly, and they shouldn’t need a reminder of what they’ve lost.”
Now is the right time to do it, too. Kierkiewicz said with the County committed to restoring Pohoiki Road and existing boat ramp infrastructure already in place, “it just makes sense for us to invest our time and energy in restoring the bay to pre-eruption conditions.”
The state also can be reimbursed by FEMA for 75% of the $40 million price tag. However, she said there’s been no formal commitment by the feds for disaster recovery money for the boat ramp. Ilagan is working closely with FEMA to get a guarantee that the state will be reimbursed for the Pohoiki project.
“We’re coming up on the fifth anniversary of the eruption in May, and my heart continues to break for my community,” Kierkiewicz said. “I think we’re all tired and we want action, but we can’t give up.”
Pleaded Sylva: “I really hope we, the fishermen, have a chance at launching out of Pohoiki in the next year.”