Shark warning signs panned and praised

Those with a stake react to response to Maui's latest challenge from nature

The Maui News
May 11, 2002

Staff Writer

WAILUKU — First it was dengue fever. Then it was flesh-eating bacteria. Now it's signs at the beach warning of shark attacks.

The latest questionable news from Maui to hit the national media — not counting Mike Tyson setting up his training camp in Wailea — drew mixed reviews on Friday.

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources' decision to post permanent signs warning of shark activity at several locations along the Olowalu shoreline was met with applause by some, while others denigrated the idea as one that raises more issues than it answers.

Three shark attacks in the last 11 years at the popular West Maui snorkeling spot along Honoapiilani Highway — two of them since October 2000 — prompted the DLNR's decision.

"My biggest concern is where we go from here," said John Kelley, president of Maui Windsurf Co. in Kahului. "Is there now an 'Olowalu Rule' that says three bites and you're out? Because that's essentially what they've done — they've removed that beach from the ocean inventory forever. It might as well be radioactive."

The DLNR is setting a precedent in its warning of shark activity, Kelley said, and it puts the state in a difficult position.

"What if there are three bites at Kaanapali?" he asked. "Do they put up signs? Because if they don't, and there's a fourth bite, they're in deep kim chee. And if they do, all those Kaanapali hotels will go out of business — what tourist in his right mind would go to a resort when there's a sign that says there are sharks in the water?"

Others in the ocean recreation industry also think the warning signs are a bad idea.

"I think it's absurd," said Lahaina Divers office manager Barbara Mattson, discounting the risk to the thousands of swimmers who use the beach. "Olowalu is probably one of the nicest and calmest places to snorkel on the whole island, and they've had three attacks in 11 years. This is a place where you can stand in the water up to your ankles, put your face in the water and see fish and beautiful coral reefs."

Tourists who see the shark warning signs are likely to pass up Olowalu and head for a beach that might be even more dangerous because of turbulent ocean conditions.

"I think it will scare people away," she said.

Mattson said she has been diving at Olowalu for eight years and has never seen a tiger shark, considered the most dangerous of those that frequent Maui waters.

The whitetip and blacktip sharks that have also been cited as a reason for posting signs don't pose much of a threat, she said.

"The whitetip is like a big old catfish," she said. "They're more afraid of you than you are of them."

Providing information to swimmers on staying out of murky water and not swimming alone or at certain hours is fine, Mattson said.

"But this is an overreaction," she said. "I see it as a sad thing. Families that come here are looking for a beautiful, calm place to snorkel."

And if shark signs are going up on Maui, she said they should be going up on other islands as well.

The head of the Maui Visitors Bureau expressed lukewarm support for the idea of shark warning signs and shared objections to singling out specific regions of Hawaii.

"I can understand their concern, but I hope it is not just Maui they are looking at," Marsha Weinert said of the DLNR. "If we're to establish a policy, it should be statewide rather than singling out one area."

Weinert said she doesn't expect news of the warning signs or the signs themselves to have a noticeable impact on Valley Isle tourism. Visitors are routinely warned about hazards they may face while on vacation, she said, from high surf advisories to reminders not to leave their valuables in rental cars parked at the beach.

"We need to continue to talk about the positives and attributes of Maui while cautioning them at the same time," she said.

Stronger support for the warning signs came from several Maui lawyers who deal with civil personal injury and wrongful death cases, including Wailuku attorney James Krueger, a proponent of beach warning signs for some time.

"It's the first time I've seen the state be proactive and do the right thing when they know there's a hazard," he said Friday. "Historically, they've turned and looked the other way, thinking that if they did nothing it would be better."

The position up to now has been that placing a sign confers legal liability on the state, Krueger said.

"In fact, it does just the opposite," the attorney said. "If there's a dangerous condition, they have a duty to warn about it."

Krueger provided a rendering of a low-key shark warning sign that is posted at all entrances to Stinson Beach in Northern California, a stretch of water that attracts Great White sharks on a regular basis.

The sign reads: "Shark Advisory — On Aug. 28, 1998, a person was attacked by a shark here at Stinson Beach. The attack occurred in 5 feet of water within 50 yards offshore. All persons going in the ocean should be aware of the potential for sharks close to shore along the entire length of the beach."

The design of the proposed 18-by-12-inch Olowalu signs shown to Board of Land and Natural Resources members at a meeting Thursday in Honolulu shows the form of a shark with the words "Sharks may be present."

Krueger said California has not incurred any liability by posting the signs. "They've discharged liability," he said, adding that Hawaii Supreme Court rulings make clear that it is a landowner's responsibility to warn of hazards.

Other Maui attorneys agreed with Krueger.

Wailuku attorney Joseph Toma said swimmers deserve a warning of any dangerous conditions that persist at a beach.

"The safety of the public should be the main concern," he said.

Attorney Steven Booth Songstad mentioned seeing news of the Maui warning signs Thursday on CNN.

"From the standpoint of tourism, it's probably a negative," he said, but the warning signs should provide the state with a buffer between someone who might get bitten and a subsequent lawsuit.

"My feeling is that the state and the county are much more afraid of liability than they should be," Songstad said, to the point of not providing needed lifeguards at some beaches.

He also noted that there have been more deaths tied to car wrecks on Honoapiilani Highway in the Olowalu area than there have been from shark attacks.

"The shark attacks could be an aberration," Songstad said, saying the actual risk of being bitten at Olowalu could be grossly exaggerated.

A big supporter of the warning signs is Native Hawaiian cultural specialist Charles Maxwell, a member of the statewide Shark Task Force.

"About three months ago I told them I thought it was a wonderful idea," Maxwell said.

There are many dangers tourists need to be reminded of when they reach Maui, he said, from ocean undertows to flash floods at the Pools of Oheo.

"We don't want to chase people away, but they get here and think this place is paradise and can't harm you, when it's actually the opposite," Maxwell said. "It's just creating awareness. It's unfair to do nothing, and I'm totally for it."

Maxwell said the recent news of dengue, flesh-eating bacteria and sharks isn't going to hurt Maui.

"Maui has such an appeal that no matter what, people will come because they're attracted to all the different aspects of the island," Maxwell said. "Just hope the Hawaiians don't become rebellious — then you're going to have a problem."

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