The state Department of Land and Natural Resources will attempt to expedite the reopening of Pohoiki boat ramp later this month, but the landlocked structure likely will remain unusable until at least the fall.
The DLNR’s Land Board will discuss a motion to waive an environmental review for a project that would dredge a channel through the beach that formed around the Pohoiki boat ramp when lava from the 2018 Kilauea eruption entered the ocean and rendered the ramp unusable.
County Council member Ashley Kierkiewicz of Puna said it is regrettable that reopening the boat ramp has taken so long, because local fishermen are taking massive financial losses by having to launch their boats from Hilo, where the nearest other boat ramp is located.
Because of the financial strain on the fishing industry, Kierkiewicz said the DLNR’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation recognized that reopening the ramp must be expedited. To this end, she said, the state found legal provisions that may exempt a dredging project from the need for a time-consuming environmental review, as it would use only existing assets that already passed an environmental review.
“This is not to say a review will never happen,” Kierkiewicz said. “But these fishermen have been waiting very patiently to get back in the water. This is a topic of great urgency.”
Unfortunately, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will still have to make a formal review of the final dredging project plans, which Kierkiewicz said likely will push a reopening of the ramp back to at least the third quarter of 2021, assuming all goes well.
However, even if the dredging plan is approved, it will only be a temporary solution to the boat ramp problem, fishermen say.
Michael Trask, president of the Big Island Fishing Association, said he believes dredging the sand from around the ramp is an overly expensive and ultimately futile project compared to other solutions.
“The problem with going with dredging is that it’s just going to get filled after one big storm,” Trask said. “If you’ve ever played in the sand on the beach, you know what’s going to happen.”
In 2019, a DLNR cost assessment of fully reopening the boat ramp estimated that dredging a channel and installing jetties to keep it open would cost $38 million. The state Legislature appropriated $1.5 million last year for a dredging project that does not include the jetties.
“What everyone wanted was to just blast the lava north of Pohoiki and make a new ramp up there,” Trask said. “But if they want to play around in the sand, if that’s the way they want to go, well, we’ll see.”
Kierkiewicz said a dredging project does not preclude the construction of a replacement ramp, saying the state can pursue an immediate, temporary solution that gets fishermen in the water while looking into a more permanent solution.
In the two years since the boat ramp was cut off from the sea, alternative sites for a new ramp have been proposed, including a site just south of MacKenzie State Recreation Area, or a site immediately north of the existing boat ramp, which, in Trask’s opinion, is the only viable alternative site, because it is still on state land and doesn’t cut off Puna fishermen from their coastal fishing grounds.
“The thing is, most of the fishermen down here are using small boats which don’t have the range to get back down here from Hilo,” Trask said. “So all the boats around here are covered in moss or have birds or trees living in them now, because nobody can use them.”
Trask and other fishermen are frustrated with the inability of the state to quickly restore a vital part of Puna’s economy.
“For all these years, what was the hottest boat ramp on the island, which brought in the most fish? Pohoiki,” Trask said. “This place is still the island’s breadbasket, and we’re wasting time and money on all these assessments.”
Email Michael Brestovansky at firstname.lastname@example.org.