Update: Maui small boat repair costs rise as bill advances for dredging

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West Maui state Rep. Elle Cochran assesses wildfire damage at Lahaina Harbor Tuesday with Heidi Speedie, operations manager of Kolea Charters. Since 1991, the family-owned charter company operated the semi-submersible, glass-bottom boat, Reef Dancer, often referred to as “the yellow submarine.” PC: Brian Perry

The Department of Land and Natural Resources estimates it will cost approximately $30 million to repair and rebuild fire-ravaged Lahaina Small Boat Harbor. Meanwhile, a bill to provide state funding for maintenance dredging at small boat harbors statewide has advanced to the Finance Committee in the House of Representatives.

The revised measure for dredging maintenance comes amid a recent Maui County Council resolution urging the state to repair the Māʻalaea Small Boat Harbor Ramp. There, sediment buildup has made it too shallow for vessels to use safely, especially at low tide. West Maui Rep. Elle Cochran says urgent repairs are also needed at fire-devastated Lahaina Harbor and badly deteriorated Māla wharf and boat ramp.

The House Committee on Water and Land Committee reviewed Senate Bill 2156, Senate Draft 2, House Draft 1, on March 20. The panel referred it to the House Finance Committee without an appropriation dollar amount or line-items for specific dredging projects.

A section in the revised bill requires the Department of Land and Natural Resources to begin including line-item funding requests in its next annual budget for maintenance dredging at state boating facilities. DLNR’s Boating and Recreation Division manages state small boat harbors.

DLNR’s Communications Office reported last week that work to rebuild Lahaina Harbor includes repairing docks, moorings, the harbor office and utilities.


(In response to a Maui Now request for small boat facility dredging plans on Thursday morning, the communications office provided answers to questions sent to another media outlet on Wednesday. The DLNR email was sent to Maui Now on Thursday, but to an incorrect email address.)

During a tour of Lahaina Harbor and Māla Ramp on Tuesday, Cochran said the destruction of Lahaina Harbor should make it a top priority for repairs to make it operational as soon as possible.

“Here we’ve got people; these people’s lives and their livelihood,” she said, referring to commercial boat operators who rely on Lahaina Harbor to conduct charter tours, fishing or other business. “Let’s get this up and running. Let’s get the people back and their jobs.”

Cochran described wildfire damage to Lahaina Harbor as being “like a war zone.”

Heidi Speedie of Kolea Charters shows to slip where the glass-bottom boat, Reef Dancer, had tied up at Lahaina Harbor. The Aug. 8 wildfire destroyed the harbor’s finger piers. PC: Brian Perry

“Finger piers” that led to docked boats at Lahaina are gone, along with burned vessels that had been in the harbor in the wildfire’s aftermath. DLNR reports that there were approximately 95 vessels, both recreational and commercial, at Lahaina Harbor prior to the Aug. 8 wildfire disaster.


On that date, there was bad weather, and the harbor was completely full of vessels, including those on temporary mooring permits, DLNR reports. Forty-eight recreational vessels and 28 commercial vessels were destroyed in the fire.

DLNR provided a repair project list for Lahaina Harbor. These include:

  • Rebuilding the harbor’s fuel system; repairs ongoing and expected to be completed by the end of April.
  • Removing piles and mooring anchors; request for proposals issued and notice to proceed set for April 1. (Completion expected by May 27.)
  • Replacing main loading pier fenders; request for bids scheduled for first week in April.
  • Repairing harbor office and ferry pier; demolition and rebuilding plans being prepared by a consultant; request for bids scheduled for April and August, respectively.
  • Rebuilding front row piers and dingy dock; consultant selected for work on design and permitting; request for bids expected in September.
  • Rebuilding outer marginal wharf; awaiting appropriation of funds for design, permitting and construction.
  • Replacing fire-damaged utilities; awaiting status of restoring utilities from Maui County, Hawaiian Electric and telecom companies.

Regarding a timeline for Lahaina Harbor’s reopening, DLNR said: “Until funding becomes available, there is no way to set a timeline for reopening.”

The department said the US Coast Guard conducted the cleanup of Lahaina Harbor and salvage of vessels, completing the work in December. “Dredging could be part of the plan for restoring the harbor, but as indicated previously, until funding becomes available, no construction can begin.”

Heidi Speedie, operations manager of family-owned Kolea Charters, said its glass-bottom semi-submersible, Reef Dancer, was burned beyond repair on Aug. 8. Efforts to acquire another submersible have been unsuccessful so far.


Often referred to as “the yellow submarine,” Reef Dancer took visitors who paid $50 each from Lahaina Harbor to the reef at Baby Beach five times a day since 1991.

“We had scuba divers in the water who brought up sea urchins, sea stars, octopus to the windows for close viewing,” she said.

Reef Dancer, a semi-submersible sometimes referred to as “the yellow submarine” was burned beyond repair Aug. 8 (right) at Lahaina Harbor. The charter tour business had 16 crew members and five casual, fill-in crew. PC: Courtesy Heidi Speedie

The business employed 16 regular crew members and five casual, fill-in crew. A few have moved away from Maui, although most have found other work on the island, Speedie said. Five employees lost their homes in the wildfire; two others were “kicked out” of rental homes to make way for landlord relatives whose homes burned, she said.

Speedie said she’s hopeful that the state has a plan to rebuild docks, waterlines, moorings and other infrastructure at Lahaina Harbor.

“Even if the state finished this by the end of the year, that could help boats have a safe place to park,” she said. However, “we don’t know if a route to the harbor for crew and guests will be approved after the harbor is repaired.”

Cochran said: “I really want the state and people to understand that, you know, the funding is critical… and No. 1 priority, having spoken to all three different groups of people, is the dredging. We need a management dredging plan. And, basically, what that means is that there’s a certain depth every channel needs to be at and when (sediment) reaches above it, you go in; you dredge it; you blow it out, whatever you do, bring it back to that standard (depth). So you don’t wait ’till it’s an emergency situation.”

A burned-out electrical panel is another sign of the extensive fire damage at Lahaina Harbor. PC: Brian Perry

In written testimony submitted to House lawmakers, Dawn Chang, chair of the Board of Land and Natural Resources, said the estimated average cost of a dredging project is about $1 million to $1.5 million, including the cost of design, permitting and dredging work. The department anticipates being able to complete two or three dredging projects each year and estimates a recurring annual appropriation of $3 million would cover annual maintenance needs.

In response to a question about “key takeaways” for the state, DLNR said it “recognizes the vital importance of both Lahaina Harbor and Māla Wharf for commercial operations, as well as for recreational boating. The key takeaways did not change because of the fire. DOBOR has been steadfastly working with stakeholders and community groups to accommodate both commercial and private recreational boating activities.”

Commercial fisherman Brendan Au says he can’t launch his fishing boat during low tide at Māla Boat Ramp. PC: Brian Perry

Chang’s list of state harbors needing dredging on a regular basis does not include Māʻalaea, although it does list Lahaina Harbor and Māla Wharf Channel.

Māla Wharf on the north end of Lahaina remains shut down behind a chain link fence because of its badly deteriorated condition, and Māʻalaea Harbor is busy with boaters who have few options on the west and south shores of Maui.

DLNR said the state accommodated as many undamaged Lahaina Harbor vessels as could fit in space available at Māʻalaea Harbor. “First priority was given to those vessels that survived the wildfires and needed to leave Lahaina Harbor so that clean-up could begin,” it said.

Lahaina resident and commercial fisherman Brendan Au, who lives on his 31-foot, twin-diesel boat in a boatyard he manages, said the lack of dredging at Māla Wharf has been a chronic problem.

And, he said he’s heard the same explanation about the lack of dredging from the state Boating and Ocean Recreation Division: (1) there isn’t funding; and (2) permits are needed. That work is expected to take two years, Au said.

Now, “I cannot launch my boat during low tide,” he said. “The ramp is that shallow.”

Also, because the water leading to the ramp isn’t deep enough, “now a little swell from the north or south; your boat gets bashed into the dock,” Au said.

One of two props on his boat costs $1,200, he said, and damaging it in shallow water “that can screw you up big time.”

Au fishes for bottom fish such as ʻōpakapaka, uku and onaga. Before the fire, his customers were West Maui restaurants, including Gerard’s Restaurant and Pacific’o on the Beach, both destroyed in the wildfire. Now, his customers have been reduced to only one restaurant.

Concerned about public safety, Au said he’s doubtful, in the event of an ocean emergency, that the Maui Fire Department could launch its $250,000, 30-foot rescue boat during low tide at Māla. “They can’t rescue you,” he said. “They have to wait until the tide comes up before they set the boat out.”

A boater launches a shallow-draft Zodiac boat Tuesday afternoon at Māla Boat Ramp in Lahaina. The wharf is badly deteriorated, and a chain link fence keeps people away. PC: Brian Perry

DLNR provided a copy of an Oct. 12, 2023, news release that reported Māla Wharf would reopen, after the wildfires, for full-time recreational vessels on Oct. 16. “People will be able to use the facility to access vessels moored offshore,” it said.

The news release did not address dredging at Māla.

However, it applauded Maui County for providing a trailer that to serve as temporary office space for harbor agents with the DLNR Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation. The county also was able to provide water and wastewater services at the site.

Commercial boat operators at Māla Wharf were informed that permittees in good standing may access Māla on weekdays only. Also:

  • Commercial operators are required to shuttle their passengers to the facility to reduce vehicle traffic and minimize visitors in fire-impacted areas.
  • All permitted shoreline commercial activities are prohibited because of water quality concerns. (Shoreline commercial permittees will be informed when their operations can resume.)
  • Any Māla Wharf permittee who violates any of the conditions could face permit revocation.

On March 8, the Maui County Council adopted a resolution urging the DLNR to repair a ramp at Māʻalaea Harbor. Council members noted that the boat ramp is in disrepair, endangering public safety and making it unsafe for the US Coast Guard to launch its small vessels during low tide. Sediment runoff into the harbor has made it too shallow for most vessels.

The DLNR Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation said dredging of the Māʻalaea launch ramp would require $4 million in funding and permits. The division said the work hinges on the department receiving funding from the Legislature.

The current bill includes a legislative finding that “the current process of waiting until dredging is imminent to appropriate funds and only then initiating the permitting process creates a haphazard system for the allocation of money and the issuance of permits.”

“This disorganized process sometimes contributes to worsened conditions at these facilities when increased amounts of marine sediment and foreign debris accumulate, sometimes up to such a height that, if not cleared immediately, can damage the hulls of ships,” the bill says.

In Lahaina fire aftermath, the burned remnants of the Reef Dancer semi-submersible can be seen in the far left side of Lahaina Small Boat Harbor. File photo PC: DLNR Hawaiʻi
Brian Perry
Brian Perry worked as a staff writer and editor at The Maui News from 1990 to 2018. Before that, he was a reporter at the Pacific Daily News in Agana, Guam. From 2019 to 2022, he was director of communications in the Office of the Mayor.
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