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Boaters plead with state to dredge ‘dangerous’ Hilo harbor

Boaters say more boats in the area are running aground and it's a safety issue that's been ongoing for a while with no relief in sight.

Posted on March 6, 2024

Wailoa Small Boat Harbor in Hilo is reportedly impassible for many larger boats.

Captains say that years of bay front weather and strong, powerful surf has brought in a large amount of sediment that has made the channel much more narrow.

For many commercial fisherman and tour operators, it’s a vital resource and not being able to use it safely is impacting their livelihood.

”We’ve had to cancel tours. We have actually dragged bottom with clients on board and they’re like, ‘Whoa, what is that?’” said Captain Jerry Gillgren who owns Malama Charters. “It has just really impeded our passage between the channel marker and there is a very dangerous rock wall on that side as well.”

As Hawaii News Now was shooting video for this story, a smaller fishing boat briefly ran aground in Wailoa Small Boat Harbor. That boat was able to get through eventually but that not always the case.

Kainoa Hauanio is Boating Program Coordinator for the University of Hawaii at Hilo. As he looks out at the program’s lager boat that has been moored at Wailoa harbor for weeks, he recalls how frustrating the situation has become over the years.

Hauanio says taking out his students in their bigger boat isn’t an option. Instead he is forced to use more resources and time shuttling them in a smaller boat.

”That’s why we can’t take students out of here, because it’s a safety issue. If anybody gets hurt, it’s going to come back to us because we know that the channel is shallow and it’s a liability,” said Hauanio.

Hauanio like many others that use Wailoa say the risk of running aground just isn’t worth it. Every time he hits bottom, he has to report the incident to the U.S. Coast Guard and pay a fee to ensure his boat is safe to operate.

He and other boaters are pleading with the DLNR Division of Boating and Ocean Resources to dredge the channel and dredge it now.

Hauanio says things got really bad just a couple weeks back during early February storms.

”Fisherman have to deal with this and they’re not even guaranteed they will make any money, you know? So if they hit on the way out, they’re already out $500 bucks and then they’re spending fuel, their gear and everything to go back out. So I feel for them,” added Hauanio.

Boaters say they’re growing even more frustrated that six years after Kilauea’s 2018 eruption DLNR still hasn’t dredged a new, variable boat ramp at Pohoiki. For commercial fisherman, that leaves them only one options on the east side of Hawaii Island and that is Wailoa Small Boat Harbor.

Hawaii News Now reached out to DLNR’s DOBOR and the agency provided the following statement:

The DLNR Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation is aware of the shallow channel conditions in the Wailoa [Small Boat Harbor]. DOBOR has been asking for funding to dredge the area for many years but we’ve never gotten any funding until last legislative session. DOBOR has begun executing the consultant contract for the dredging of the Wailoa SBH channel with the Capital Improvements Project funding just released on January 8, 2024. Consultant selection happened recently and DOBOR anticipates executing of the contract by next month. It will take approximately 6-9 months after execution of the consultant contract to obtain the required USACE and County permits, complete plans, specifications, and bidding documents and be ready to solicit for bids. DOBOR is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to try to rush permits. If everything runs quickly, they may be able to place out a solicitation sooner and start construction during this summer.

DOBOR said at this time, there’s no way to do emergency dredging until the department obtains all the necessary permits.


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