HONOLULU (KHON2) — Manta ray viewing is a popular tourist attraction, but the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources [DLNR] said it has led to overcrowding, safety concerns and environmental impacts. Officials now want to regulate the tours, but some tour operators disagree with some of the proposed rules. 

The Manta Ray Dives of Hawai’i owner Seth Conae said they have been in business for nearly 30 years but that in recent years, manta ray tours have exploded in popularity. 

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Conae said, “In the last 12 years, a busy night when I first started, it was like 13 boats at one spot. And now, it’s 26 boats on a busy night.”

The majority of long-time operators follow a set of best practices put together by the Manta Pacific Research Foundation and members of the industry. 

The president of the foundation, Keller Laros said, “We did that in concert with 30 or 40 different operators who helped us put this document together. Unfortunately, it’s a voluntary standard. And, there was no lid put on the number of commercial operators at that time.”

Tour operators follow the standards using the honor system; but given the demand for the tours, new operators are coming into the mix. 

Conae said, “We’re talking about a few who started doing their own thing, and not kind of adhering to what has worked best for the last 30 years.”

Some of the unsafe practices noticed by the DLNR Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation as well as operators is “live boating”. Conae said there are instances of boats passing between groups of snorkelers, something he sees as unsafe. 

Conae said, “Live boating with around 200 people in the water and also manta rays has been an unsafe practice.”

The Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation Administrator Edward Underwood said the Board of Land and Natural Resources approved initiating rulemaking proceedings to set regulations on two popular manta ray tour sites, Makako Bay and Kaukalaelae Point on the Big Island. 

Some of the proposed regulations include an 8-to-1 guide-to-customer ratio on tours, defining 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. the next day as manta viewing hours and prohibiting fishing in the zones during manta viewing hours. 

Although a big proposed change is cutting down commercial viewing permits by more than half, limiting 24 permits per site. The state estimates about 60 to 70 viewing vessels are currently operating. 

“We feel that those businesses that have been doing this activity longest should be issued permits first,” Underwood said. “And then once those permits are issued, any subsequent permit may be issued by public OSH auction process.” 

Conae said he is in favor of additional guardrails for the safety of the public and the mantas, but he is concerned by the effect limiting permits could have. He said they have three permits to operate three boats, and it remains unclear if he will have to reduce his operation. 

“If they decide to say that you can only have one permit for the Manta, then that’s going to obviously limit the amount of workers I have for myself,” Conae said. “So a lot of people will be out of work because I wouldn’t be able to employ them.”

Conae said if safety is the major issue, the state could move forward with regulations to address live boating without having to cap the number of permits. Other suggestions include staggering times for operators, which could address some of the overcrowding concerns. 

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The state is expected to announce dates for public hearings on the rulemaking process.