Why there are No Rules or Regulations for Manta Ray Tourism (2024 update)

Mar 18, 2024 | How to Protect Manta Rays

Manta ray tourism is becoming less safe and sustainable every year.

With too many boats and way too many people, the spots where mantas regularly come to feed are oversaturated, and the number of avoidable accidents is sadly increasing. We’ve been discussing this issue for years, but we still don’t have any clear and official legislation in place. Since people often ask us what’s taking so long, here’s our take on the development of regulations for manta ray tourism.

The Growth of Manta Tourism in Hawaii

A lot has happened since the first boat tours started taking tourists on manta ray dives in 1991. Back then, there would be one boat a night at one viewing site once a week. In the last decade, tourism has boomed, and boat operations have grown exponentially.

To see how things changed from the early days until today, take a look at the timeline on this page.

Since 2012, it has been clear we URGENTLY need enforced regulations to keep everyone safe (manta rays, participants, crew, captain, vessels, reefs/environment). However, getting those rules in place takes much longer than anyone expected.

Why manta ray tourism is still unregulated?

2012-2020: Voluntary Guidelines and Draft Rules

In 2012, federal and state officials tasked the manta ray tour operators with regulating themselves and creating voluntary guidelines.

In 2013, these guidelines were developed, democratically voted on, and adopted by the majority of the industry’s stakeholders. But a few boat owners left the meeting room, stating, “This is a gentleman’s agreement, and I am not a gentleman. I do not care and will not participate.”

By 2014, it had become clear that the guidelines were ineffective, as these activity providers (who said they would not adhere) had set a devastating trend of not accepting any self-regulation.

The same year, Hawaii legislators urged the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to address overcapacity at manta ray viewing sites, the spots where manta rays are normally seen and where tour operators conduct their activities. As a result, the DLNR began drafting official regulations for manta ray tourism.

In 2015, an assessment accurately concluded that severe accidents were LIKELY to occur if no steps were taken to mitigate the risks.

2020: Proposed Changes to Manta Tourism Regulations

(Finally) in 2020, after six years of back and forth, the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation (DOBOR) proposed changes to the regulations for manta ray tourism.

You can find the draft of the proposed rules on the official website of the DLNR – Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation (DOBOR). If you are not a fan of legal terms, we have explained the proposed rules in simpler terms in this article.

The DLNR decided to implement these regulations in 2021, but it’s now 2024, and we’re still waiting. Things have not progressed much since 2020.

2020: Ka Pa’akai Analysis

Following a September 2000 Hawaii Supreme Court ruling, the process requires incorporating the Ka Pa’akai analysis. This analysis looks at traditional and customary Native Hawaiian practices in the area, how proposed rules and activities impact those practices, and what is being done to mitigate any adverse impacts.

The DLNR officials work with local Native Hawaiian practitioners on the Aha Moku Advisory Committee (an entity that enhances, protects, conserves, and manages Hawaii’s natural, cultural, and historic resources held in public trust) to develop a Ka Pa’akai analysis.

After the revised rule draft is complete, the DLNR lawyers must return to the Board of Land and Nature Resources for approval to hold another round of public hearings (the last one was held in February 2023).

However, there isn’t an estimate for when this will happen because of some other roadblocks in the process:

2020-2022: Slow Proceedings

Nowadays, citizens are more actively involved with proposed bills during the legislative session and take their time reviewing and discussing them.

While this is a good thing, as it shows that citizens are better informed and more engaged in government decisions, we believe that the multiple opportunities for citizens and organizations to share their opinions and concerns about the new regulations have slowed down the process considerably.

2023: Permit Issuance Lawsuit

At the end of 2023, the start of a controversial surf school permit program in Kahalu’u Bay was legally blocked because three out of four permits issued via lottery went to the same owner.

In light of this lawsuit, the DNLR is waiting to see the outcome, as it will set a precedent. The judge has set the next hearing for August 2024, so it will be some time before they know if/how they can proceed.

Depending on the outcome and if there are no statutory amendments, there may only be a first-come, first-served option to issue permits for manta ray tours. If this is the case, it may not produce the fairest results.

HB1090, a legislative bill that outlines how the DLNR issues and renews permits for commercial ocean activities, would have provided additional methods of permit issuance. The DOBOR was able to get HB1090 through the legislature last year, 2022/2023, but the Governor unfortunately vetoed it.

The DLNR introduced another bill this year, but it died in committee hearings.

2023-2024: Upgrading the Moorings Infrastructure

The new regulations state that tour operators must use moorings, a place where a boat can be tied so it stays in place with the engine off during the length of the activity. Therefore, new/replacement moorings will need to be installed at the manta ray viewing sites before any new regulations are enforced.

The DLNR is well aware that it would not be fair to operators to prohibit activities such as live boating (when the boat’s engine is running rather than being anchored or moored), daisy-chaining (a method to connect two to three boats in a line), and anchoring, without providing avenues for compliance, which are the moorings.

Engineers are working on installing new moorings and upgrading the infrastructure at the viewing sites. The DLNR is waiting to hear back from the engineers on the project’s status, which needs to be finished before they can proceed.

The Politics of Politics

On top of all of the above, if you follow local politics more closely, you’ll understand that the DLNR does not have a straight pass to implement new regulations. The DLNR answers to the Board of Land and Natural Resources (BLNR) but needs amendments to current legislation. While changes have been set in motion, the process is slow, and there have been setbacks.

Hawaii is not the only place where the real world grew faster than legislation can catch up to. But this does not mean we should stop trying. We simply wish officials would try harder and start earlier to get serious about avoiding this much chaos.

How Can You Help?

Ready to join the cause? Stay in the loop by subscribing to our newsletter for all the latest news and ways you can lend a hand.

It’s time to step up for safer manta ray tourism. We need real rules and regulations, and every voice counts.

CONTRIBUTE TO SUSTAINABLE MANTA RAY TOURISM

While we’re still waiting for real rules and regulations that can protect tourists, crew, and manta rays around Hawaii, it’s important to choose your manta ray tour wisely. Check out this useful resource on the Hawaii Ocean Watch website!

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