LAHAINA - With the Mala boat ramp tentatively scheduled to close on Oct. 14 for 60 days, the handful of commercial bottom fishing boats that use the ramp are still trying to figure out what they will be doing for two months. You also have the fishing boats from the other side that launch from Mala to fish this side of the island and Lanai.
There are plans to use three of the available slips in Lahaina Harbor for the larger commercial operators, which will cause more crowding for the already busy loading dock. With cruise ship season beginning in October, traffic on the north side of the dock is priority availability for the tenders.
Some of the smaller boats could squeeze into spaces at the harbor, with harbors requesting any boats that would like to pull their vessels out of the harbor during that time. The Lahaina Harbor ramp might also be used by a few of the smaller trailer boats, but no trailer parking would be available for them.
In an $892,000 improvement project, the existing Mala Wharf concrete loading docks will be replaced, as well as a portion of the launch ramp and approach to the ramp. Parking lot and related improvements are also slated.
The Lahaina ramp is technically condemned, so users would have to sign a hold harmless waiver to use the ramp - if harbors approves them.
Another option would be to trailer their fishing boats to Maalaea Harbor to launch. That is a very expensive option for most fishermen, not only in cost but in wasted time.
Add to that the extra distance and the high cost of fuel just to haul their boats to Maalaea, plus additional time and fuel spent to get to the backside of Lanai or North Shore of Maui and Molokai to fish their grounds. As it is, you can't afford to constantly go out, or constantly go far.
There are limited trailer boat stalls at Maalaea to use, and on the weekends, forget it.
I talked with Capt. Brendan "Tavesi" Au, owner of Scorpio; Capt. Dennis Blevins, owner of Puff Daddy; and Capt. John Meston, owner of Paka Lips, about their plans.
Tavesi said, "It shuts me down." He fishes at least three times a week, doing overnight trips for the "Deep 7" bottomfish.
He sells to four restaurants on the Lahaina side, and the shutdown is going to put a big dent in his income.
"It might affect the availability of bottomfish on their menus," he said, "because they buy a lot of fish from the local fishermen. They will have to get it from someone else, or Honolulu."
When the restaurants and vendors go to some other supplier, he wonders if the Mala boats will lose them as clients.
Trailering his boat to Maalaea is out of the question. Tavesi has his boat parked at Mala boat yard and is one of the boats that cannot be trucked to Maalaea to launch.
His 31-foot Bertram with bridge and outriggers also has no bottom paint. Two months in the water, in the harbor or a mooring, will cause a lot of growth on the bottom that will need to be pressure-washed when he hauls back out.
Capt. Blevins tries to go every weekend - or more if he can get the time. He said, "I 'Jones' if I don't get out at least once a week." He also sells to a few restaurants on Maui.
Dennis mentioned that he is not going to Maalaea to launch.
"I'm not going to burn all my fuel launching from Maalaea and try to get to the backside of Lanai," he said.
"I can't afford to put that fuel in the boat, and ice and everything, and lose it. I pretty much have to make money or at least break even."
Dennis also said he is not about to put his boat out on a mooring.
"No way, unless I slept on it. You can put your boat on a mooring, but nobody wants to put their boat on a mooring unattended," he said. That is a completely different insurance coverage - more risk.
He had the same thought about sitting in the harbor for two months, which will cause a lot of growth on the bottom of his boat.
As far as getting out, "I can probably jump on my friend's boat that is moored in Lahaina Harbor to go fishing," he mentioned.
Capt. Meston, aboard Paka Lips, fishes twice a week. He sells to the fish brokers and a few of the restaurants.
He said that he would probably have to go to Maalaea. "I will be burning more gas to get to where I will go fishing and more fuel for the boat to get to the grounds I like to fish," he said.
John said, "From here to Molokai is only 14 miles, but leaving from Maalaea will be at least 30 miles. This is one way."
His fuel costs will triple, and the boat will need more maintenance. There will also be more wear and tear on his truck and trailer from the extra mileage.
He said that leaving from Maalaea will also cause the Lahaina boats to look for different and closer grounds. Then you run the chance of bad fishing spots and "fishing in somebody else's back yard," so to speak.
When the weather is a bit stinky, South Maui or Kahoolawe are out of the question. You have to run to Lanai or back to the Lahaina side.
Most of the bottom fishermen out of Mala fish at least once a week. Fish supply and prices should stay fairly stable, because there are only a handful of commercial bottom fishing boats out of Mala. It is a commodity, and supply is not always consistent. There are a lot of variables: market prices, especially the weather. There are also the Maalaea, Kahului and Kihei boats to supply the demand.
The main concern is going to be the fuel costs leaving from Maalaea. It may cause some of the fishermen to think about making a trip and possibly losing money. It's not cost-effective if you are only going out once a week.
It's not just the fishermens' income that will be affected, but their families (no fresh fish for that luau), crew wages, and all the restaurants and vendors that support the industry.
There will also be less income for the businesses where they get their fuel, ice, food, drinks, fishing supplies, boat maintenance and other items needed just to go fishing.