Between a Barge and a Hard Place

Young Brothers proposes several changes to Molokai shipping service.
By Sean Aronson

Molokai is full of talk about sustainability and self-sufficiency, but every day brings reminders of how far away this island is from either.  Perhaps the most glaring example of this is the reliance on weekly barges for nearly everything – fuel, food and building supplies. For these essential items, the island is serviced by just one company, Young Brothers, Ltd.   And a number of proposed changes to the delivery schedule and rates of these barges has this community talking.

Currently, Molokai’s two weekly barges arrive on consecutive days, Wednesday and Thursday.  This presents storage problems for the island’s grocery stores because they must essentially unload and keep a weeks’ worth of merchandise in just two days.  It also means the shelves are virtually empty on Monday and Tuesday.

Under the proposed changes, Molokai would receive a barge on Monday and Thursday. The biggest difference is that the Monday barge will be going directly from Honolulu to Molokai, whereas before the Wednesday barge was going from Honolulu to Maui and then on to Molokai.  

Despite all of this information being publically available, some Molokai residents say Young Brothers is not acting in the best interest of the island.

Here’s an excerpt from an email that made the rounds through various Molokai email lists earlier this month:

“In a nutshell, Young Brothers is trying to sneak a schedule change past the PUC [Public Utilities Commission]. No fresh vegetables? Everything, vegetables, cattle, will have to route through Honolulu taking two or more days. They also want to end the Maui to Molokai link.  YB did not tell Molokai or Lanai residents the truth of what they are

Young Brothers did hold a public meeting on Feb. 2nd in Kaunakakai to discuss the proposed barge schedule change as well as changes to the rates for shipping.  In addition, all of these changes were laid out in documents that are available on the Young Brothers website.

Why the Change?

Young Brothers says the change was precipitated by the current economic recession.  Roy Catalani, Vice President of Strategic Planning and Government Affairs for the barge company, says the volume of all shipped good is far below last years’ and thus an extra barge that serviced Maui is no longer needed.  Thus the whole system was re-evaluated, leaving four islands, including Molokai, with changes to their barge life-line.

The loss of the special Maui barge will significantly reduce Young Brothers’ overall costs, according to Catalani.  He said this cost savings will be passed on to the consumer and not used to increase the company’s profits.

Since Molokai will not have a direct barge from Maui, anything that comes from that island will have to travel to Honolulu first before arriving back on Molokai.  This makes it less likely to get fresh produce from Maui, since it would be two days since it left the Valley Isle.  Catalani said the two grocery stores do not get a significant amount of their produce from Maui and he estimates more than 95% comes from the mainland United States.

Catalani said Young Bros. has been working very closely with business owners on Molokai to come up with a solution that is best for the island’s needs.  He said grocery store owners and building companies are among those he has spoken with about the proposed changes.

Two Stores, Two Opinions
The proposed schedule change will no doubt affect Molokai’s two grocery stores – Misaki’s and Friendly Market – the most.  They will have to alter their distribution orders and employee schedules.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Jeff Egusa, President of Friendly Market. “I think it’s the best thing since apple pie.”

He is excited by the prospect of having the barges spaced out, if only because he will be able to offer his customers better stocked shelves.  He said it is also a relief on his employees since the increased demand will not occur on consecutive days, but rather a few days apart, making both customers and employees happier.

Egusa said under the old system, the barge arrived on Tuesday and Thursday, so the new proposal will be more in line with that.

The other grocery store owner, Kevin Misaki, has a much different take on the changes.  He said he is not looking forward to the changes and it will significantly disrupt his weekly schedule.

Misaki is also concerned about the loss of fresh produce his store relies on from Maui.

“I can’t see where it [the changes] would do anything positive,” said Misaki.  Adding, “I don’t believe the costs will come down.”

A More Important Issue?

While the schedule change is certainly significant, some island residents say there is another, more pressing element to the new Young Brother’s proposals – a fee increase of 25% for LCL’s, or less than container loads.

“When looking at the whole community, this is clearly the most important issue,” said Barbara Haliniak, President of the Molokai Chamber of Commerce.

Haliniak said 95% of all island businesses rely on the LCL’s for the shipment of their goods.  Since Molokai is a small island, businesses can’t fill an entire container and thus pay more proportionally for their goods.  But the 25% increase goes too far, said Haliniak.

Consequently, Haliniak said the Molokai Chamber of Commerce is in negotiations to get the rate increase down to 12%. “I’m very hopeful we will reduce the increase,” said Haliniak. “This Island cannot absorb that kind of raise,” she added.

All of the proposed changes – barge schedule and rate increase – must be approved by the Public Utilities Commission.  If they are approved, residents could see them take affect as early as April, said Catalani.

If you have questions or concerns about the proposed changes, you can contact the Young Brothers customer service department at 543-9311 or the Consumer Advocate of Hawaii at consumeradvocate@dcca.hawaii.gov.


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