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Once-a-Week Barge Approved for 30 Days

By Catherine Cluett Pactol

Last week, the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission approved Young Brothers’ request to reduce Molokai’s barge from twice to once weekly for 30 days, until May 31.

In its April 24 filing with the PUC, the interisland freight company claimed financial hardship from “a drastic drop in cargo volumes and revenues” due to COVID-19 in requesting a reduced sailing schedule for Maui and Hawaii counties. The same amount of goods is arriving, but instead of two sailings to Kaunakakai per week, departing from Honolulu on Sundays and Tuesdays, YB has discontinued the Sunday sailing and moved the Tuesday sailing to Saturday. The barge now arrives on Molokai Sunday afternoons for Monday pickup.

Local grocery stores are left trying to juggle the new schedule and how they will store chilled produce, with little time before the change was implemented to plan and coordinate with wholesale vendors.

“We’ve made the adjustments we think are necessary but ultimately there just isn’t enough cold storage,” said Kit Okimoto, CFO of Friendly Market Center. He said YB has offered Molokai grocery stores extra cold storage space at the dock so “it doesn’t all have to be shoved in our freezer.” He said that’s been very helpful to allow a second pickup of chilled produce each week but it still means it all has to get packed and shipped just once a week. Separating and labeling goods for staggered pickup puts an extra burden on the stores’ vendors.

“It’s a big ask for the guys on Oahu and Maui but they’ve been really helpful,” said Okimoto.

He said ensuring adequate shelf life of perishable items “is always at the top of our list” but it’s now a lot more challenging.

One of the hardest products to keep is ice cream. The only way to make it last is packing it in dry ice, said Okimoto, which is more expensive and decreases the product quality.

“We’re [Molokai stores] all in the same position and we’re all just crossing our fingers… that the ice cream will arrive as ice cream and not milk shakes,” he laughed.

MIsaki’s owner Kevin Misaki said with the reduced barge schedule, pallets have to be packed for Molokai on Thursday, and with YB offering cold dock storage for a second pickup Wednesday, some produce will be about a week old before it gets on Molokai store shelves.

“A lot of things have really short shelf life already so us guys, we might lose a lot of money because we’re going to take the chance getting the product. It’s going to put a strain on Molokai,” he said.

Misaki said COVID-19 is already causing shortages of items like sanitizing products and flour.

“We’re already doing without a lot of things and now going to be doing without a lot more things,” said Misaki. “Molokai has always lived off the land more than other place, but other islands have a lot more options. But Molokai — we’re at the mercy of the barge.”

Molokai Chamber of Commerce President Rob Stephenson was among those who submitted testimony to the PUC opposing YB’s request.

“Every other island except Molokai and Lanai has access to direct shipments from the mainland and the ability for their distributors, grocers and families to have same day access to products as they arrive in Hawaii,” he wrote. “Our community does not, placing us in the most vulnerable of positions when something as critical as food distribution infrastructure changes without thoughtful effort spent to understand the consequences or identify viable solutions to offset the impacts.”

While Molokai farmers who export produce are normally among those affected by barge schedule changes, YB has scheduled a second pickup for agricultural products leaving Molokai. On its way back to Honolulu from Hawaii Island, the barge is stopping at the Kaunakakai Harbor for just a couple of hours for outgoing produce pickup only.

“We are all so dependent on YB, they are literally our lifeline,” said Grant Schule of Kumu Farms, which ships Molokai-grown papaya and other produce around the state and mainland. “That is their tag line, but rarely do they live up to it. They also tout being supportive of agriculture, and in some cases they are. This is one of those times.”

Schule is grateful for the support.

“In all my experience with YB, this is truly a first,” he said. “They are going the extra mile, with added cost, to support Molokai’s farmers. This is so critical to our viability and our staff and employees, on both islands [Molokai and Maui].”

Meanwhile, Okimoto and Misaki said they may have to resort to using air freight to ensure customers have fresh produce at the end of the week.

Okimoto said they normally ship a few items like fresh fish by air but try to limit its use because air freight costs about six times as much as barge freight. But with the current barge schedule, he said they will have to air freight in “significantly more produce.”

“We’re going to best to absorb as much as we can if it’s temporary but if it’s long term, we will have pass it on to customers,” said Okimoto.

In its decision to grant YB’s request for the emergency barge schedule reduction, the PUC has requested YB submit several pieces of additional information by May 22 which it stated it will review to determine if the schedule changes are justified to continue beyond 30 days.

“We’ll just have to roll with the punches and make the adjustments as they come,” said Okimoto.

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