February 22, 2024

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Yacht Fuel Spill In Maui’s Honolua Bay Prompts Calls For Reform

Yacht Fuel Spill In Maui’s Honolua Bay Prompts Calls For Reform

The grounding of the 94-foot luxury vessel has sparked calls to change the way commercial activity is handled in sensitive coastal waters.

It was about 6:30 in the morning when Paele Kiakona got the call from his father: A yacht was in trouble at Honolua Bay. 

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The two fishermen decided to load up their Jet Skis, call friends with boats and head over to try to free the vessel. But by the time they got there later that morning, the tide was receding.

The 94-foot yacht was stuck on the reef, and no matter how hard they pulled, it wouldn’t budge. The men came back later to offer to help remove fuel from the boat, but were told to get out of the water and let the government handle it.

In the days since the Feb. 20 grounding, Kiakona’s worst fear came true: The yacht leaked diesel into the water flowing to one of Maui’s most beloved marine sanctuaries, making national headlines.

And because the owner of the 120-ton yacht, Jim Jones, said he wouldn’t pay it, the state has put up $460,000 to salvage the vessel, which drifted from an area where it should never have been moored overnight in the first place. 

A luxury yacht ran aground on Maui on Feb. 20. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)
A luxury yacht ran aground off Maui on Feb. 20 and began leaking fuel in Honolua Bay. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)

“Everybody was mad, and all fingers were pointed at the captain and the owner of the boat,” said Kiakona. “But you know, if they were policed to begin with, this multi-million dollar mistake could have been avoided.”

The 120-ton boat is still stuck there. After crews spent hours Sunday trying to free the yacht, a tractor tug boat from Sause Brothers on Oahu joined the effort on Monday evening, turning it about 90 degrees.

But after an evening in the water with limited success, the contractor decided to head back to Oahu to resupply with a stronger rigging, according to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. In a news release just after 9 p.m. Monday, the agency said the effort, which also involves a salvage ship operated by Visionary Marine, would resume again on Wednesday at the earliest.

“That’s another big issue, is that when these things happen, especially with a vessel this large, we don’t have the resources here,” DLNR Deputy Director Laura Kaakua said during a weekend briefing on Maui.

As the attempts to remove the yacht continue, many of Maui’s elected officials and residents are now calling for widespread reforms in the way the government prevents and responds to shipwrecks in Hawaii’s coastal waters.

Some Maui residents are also asking whether boats — especially those making money off of tourists — even belong in marine conservation areas like Honolua Bay, which are set up to protect delicate ocean ecosystems from harm.

The way Kiakona sees it, the unchecked commercial activity threatens not only the health of the land and the ocean, but also Native Hawaiians like himself who rely on the natural environment.

“We just need a major shift in the status quo to not only protect (Honolua Bay), but to protect the people who are of this land,” Kiakona said.

Jones told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he was on a family outing and spent the night attached to a day-use mooring at Honolua Bay. He said he didn’t know that it was only allowed to be used for two hours at a time. But his line snapped early on the morning of Feb. 20, and before anyone noticed, the yacht drifted onto the reef.

A luxury yacht ran aground on Maui on Feb. 20. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources is still investigating the incident. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)

The yacht is one of two that Jones has through his company, Noelani Yacht Charters, which sells tours from Maui starting around $9,800, according to its website. The company advertises tours to Honolua Bay.

In recent years, Jones has run into legal trouble and was sued twice for failing to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans he took out to buy a yacht, according to court records. Before that, he was sued by the state for working as an unlicensed contractor. Noelani Yacht Charters did not respond to a call requesting comment. 

DLNR is still investigating the incident and says it plans to send the bill to the yacht owner, who may face other fines for breaking boating laws and damaging the reef. The agency declined to comment on the pending investigation and wouldn’t say whether Jones had a valid insurance policy for the boat or if there was a licensed captain on board.

At first, Maui County on Feb. 20 tried to expedite any permits that might be needed to free the boat, but it isn’t in the county’s purview to excavate shipwrecks. In general, boat owners are responsible for recovering wrecked vessels, and DLNR can step in to remove them on the owner’s dime.

But if government officials learn there might be hazardous materials threatening marine life — like the Nakoa leaking diesel into Honolua Bay — the U.S. Coast Guard steps in and takes over, using federal dollars to remove all harmful substances and objects like batteries and fuel.

Since 2019, there were 651 fuel spills in Hawaii marine waters that were reported to the state, according to the Department of Health. During that time period, the U.S. Coast Guard said it took control of the clean-up in three different instances, the most recent being Honolua Bay.

A luxury yacht ran aground on Maui on Feb. 20. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)
Federal agencies stepped in when fuel started leaking. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)

But it wasn’t until the fourth day after the vessel ran aground and the third day after the boat started leaking fuel that the Coast Guard’s hired contractor was able to start draining the diesel and hauling away batteries. Although some of that equipment is housed on Maui, much of it is stored on Oahu, so it took some time to ship it in.

There was a similar delay in starting the effort to then pull the boat off the reef after the hazardous materials were removed. That contractor had to travel from Oahu too.

“We don’t have the resources for containment of spills, and those are issues that seriously need to be worked on sooner rather than later,” said West Maui Council member Tamara Paltin. “With climate change, weather events are getting more extreme, and we don’t even have the capacity now.”

Before Paltin was a council member, she worked as a lifeguard. She and her colleagues would receive calls about shipwrecks — including ones that were long abandoned in Maui’s coastal waters.

She recalled the sailboat that got stuck after it drifted onto the reef in front of Lahaina’s famous Front Street on Halloween night — where it remained for eight years. Paltin said tourists would call emergency responders, thinking that the snorkelers around the boat were shipwreck victims.

In recent years, Maui has experienced more frequent Kona storms that sent boats aground in shallow waters. In Kihei, for example, a December 2021 Kona low pushed a sailboat all the way onto a popular beach, where it sat for five months until it was removed. In one recent storm alone, Paltin said, almost a half-dozen boats wrecked in West Maui after their mooring lines snapped. But there was never the same sense of urgency as now.

“Shipwrecking is a common thing in West Maui, and they’re used to not getting responses — especially after Kona storms,” Paltin said. “(Honolua Bay) is like the crown jewel of Maui, so obviously, it was a big, big deal.” 

A luxury yacht ran aground on Maui on Feb. 20. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)
Efforts to tow the boat off the reef had been unsuccessful as of Monday. (Courtesy: DLNR/2023)

In Paltin’s view, the best path forward involves working with communities to bring more oversight to Maui’s coastal waters.

More than a decade ago, there was a program that helped train citizens to watch over places like Honolua Bay in partnership with DLNR, but that fell by the wayside.

“If you’re not going to have the capacity (to deal with boats) when they wreck, then where’s the preventative?” Paltin said.

But paying for people to patrol the islands costs money, and DLNR receives 1{18875d16fb0f706a77d6d07e16021550e0abfa6771e72d372d5d32476b7d07ec} or less of the state’s operating budget. The department has also struggled for years to recruit officers to uphold conservation laws, though that aspect is improving.

In a statement, DLNR spokesperson Dan Dennison said the department will welcome 42 recruits who graduate from the training academy next month. Once they complete training, that will bring a “significantly increased conservation officer presence across the state,” he said.

“We would love to have enough officers to patrol everywhere, but with 700 miles of shoreline in the state and millions of acres of land under DLNR jurisdiction, that of course is an impossibility,” Dennison said in an email. 

A beach near Lahaina in West Maui.
DLNR oversees 700 miles of shoreline in Hawaii but has limited personnel resources.

State Rep. Elle Cochran, whose district includes West Maui, has long fought to protect Honolua Bay. She said she understands that DLNR is stretched thin and that officials did everything they could to work quickly to remove the Nakoa and the threat it posed to the ocean. As soon as the boat ran aground, DLNR began working to hire contractors on an emergency basis to salvage the boat. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard hired a company that used a helicopter to fly 55-gallon drums of fuel from the boat’s stern to the point above the bay.

But Cochran said she also understands that many Maui residents felt like the response didn’t happen fast enough. She said she’s going to look into what it might take to purchase a towing vessel or have one on retainer so there aren’t delays in trying to find a contractor equipped to deal with grounded boats on Maui. 

“Every minute a boat is grounded, it’s devastating to the ocean and environment,” said Cochran. “We need to take care of it; time is of the essence.”

Tiare Lawrence, who’s long advocated for changes to marine management in Lahaina, said the government needs to overhaul the way it responds to grounded vessels. After almost every storm, she sees boats run aground, and each time, there isn’t a clear process to handle them. In some cases, they stay there for months or years, even when residents complain to state officials.

The situation in Honolua also made it clear that waiting until after a boat has leaked fuel to get the Coast Guard involved isn’t enough to protect Maui’s coastal waters.

“The fuel and any other substances should automatically be removed — that’s the first thing,” Lawrence said. “If a hull of a boat breaks, obviously you’re opening up a can of worms.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.