Coast Guard seeks to stop illegal lava tours

Coast Guard seeks to stop illegal lava tours

KILAUEA VOLCANO, BIG ISLAND (HawaiiNewsNow) - The Coast Guard is ramping up enforcement to tackle an increase in illegal lava tours, which are ferrying visitors to Kilauea's spectacular lava show.

In the last 24 hours, Coast Guard crews cited two tour boats operating without licenses out of Pohoiki Boat Ramp.

The Coast Guard won't say which tour operators were cited because of the ongoing investigation or what punishment they may face.

It's uncharted territory for the agency as it figures out its enforcement role and demand for tours heats up.

We are encouraging visitors and tourists in the area to make sure that their operators are properly licensed because these operators are well equipped in dealing with emergencies and operating procedures and they have an abundance of situational awareness," said Petty Officer Melissa McKenzie by phone from Honolulu.

"Safety is always our top priority," said Coast Guard Capt. David McClellan, in a news release.

The Coast Guard also said that those interested in heading out on a tour boat should be sure operators are licensed.

Commercial tour boat and charter operators must have merchant mariner credentials to operate. Masters of commercial charters operating in state waters are also required to have a state permit.

The state says only four legal boat tours can ferry visitors to lava. They are:

  • Lava Ocean Tours
  • Moku Nui Lava Tours
  • Kalapana Cultural Tours
  • Hawaiian Lava Boat Tours

Each are permitted to use just one vessel.

The largest legal operator, Lava Ocean Tours, takes about 150 people to see the lava with several trips each day. "At this point there's more of a demand for the product than the legal operators can provide," said owner Shane Turpin.

He said the state once allowed four permits for boat charters to the lava, but cut it in half.

"This attraction has outgrown the number of seats on boats which generally lead to the activity we are seeing," he said.

Lava Ocean Tours wants the state to increase the number of permits allowed.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources said in order for that to happen, administrative rules need to be changed through legislation.

Tens of thousands of people are flocking to Kamokuna on the Big Island to see lava flows entering the ocean. The natural wonder has garnered national news, but has also spurred safety concerns as tour boats and hikers try to get as close as they can to the lava.

In a letter to the state earlier this year, the National Park Service said some ocean lava tours are taking big risks.

"Boats have been observed going into and through the plume generated by the ocean entry," the park service said. "This is a serious safety hazard due to fine volcanic particles and hazardous gases."

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