Coast Guard and maritime partners work to protect humpback whales in the Pacific

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael De Nyse

LAHAINA, Hawaii – Crews from the U.S. Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the State of Hawaii’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) are partnering this humpback whale season to ensure the safety of mariners as well as humpback whales as they migrate to Hawaiian waters.

Humpback whale migration season is generally from December to April and according to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Marine National Sanctuary, Hawaii’s waters are relatively nutrient-free and too warm to support enough of the humpback’s food to sustain them year round. The whales must migrate back to colder water to feed and rebuild their blubber supply.

The 14th Coast Guard District is home to four Marine National Monuments (MNM) and two National Marine Sanctuaries (NMS), more than any other region in the United States.

During the 2009-2010 humpback whale season, a special mission has been added to the Coast Guard’s “to-do” list. Called “Operation Kohola Guardian,” it is a program created to formalize the Coast Guard’s protection of the endangered humpback whale. Operation Kohola Guardian involves coordinated joint Coast Guard, NOAA and DOCARE patrols of the NMS during the peak months of January through March. The Coast Guard aims to protect both the safety of mariners as well as the endangered humpback whales while in the sanctuary by direct communication with boaters.

“It’s important the Coast Guard, NOAA and DOCARE work together on this mission because the agencies share a common goal of protection of marine mammal species in the sanctuaries,” said Special Agent Chuck Raterman, an 11-year member of NOAA currently stationed out of Guam.

Raterman recently spent some time with Coast Guard and DOCARE crews during a weekend patrol of the Maui triangle, the area of water between Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

“We rely heavily on the transportation and assets our partners can provide for this mission,” said Raterman, who talked with many recreational boaters during the patrol. “It truly is a multi-agency mission when we all come together like this.”

Hawaii is a maritime state, and many citizens work and play in the waters that surround the islands. It’s estimated that 12,000 humpback whales transit Hawaiian waters each year and some mariners may not know they share this area with the humpbacks, says Raterman.

Coast Guard crews conduct weekly sanctuary patrols to ensure boaters and marine life stay safe.

“We have the unique ability to prevent an occurrence in the first place,” said Eric Roberts, the 14th Coast Guard District’s marine protected species program manager. “I consider just being out there a very key element in this operation, because violators are less likely to harass a whale if they see a Coast Guard or DOCARE vessel on the horizon.”

According to NOAA, there are several whale collisions near the Hawaiian Islands every year. Boaters can take proactive measures to ensure their safety as well as the safety of the whales.

Keeping a boat’s speed down when whales are known to be in the area is one step mariners can take. Weighing an average of 45 tons, a humpback whale collision with a mariner can be catastrophic.

When on routine patrol, Coast Guard surface and aerial assets scan the area for signs of whales. Upon a sighting, the crews alert mariners in the whale’s vicinity to ensure a 100-yard safety zone is met. It is illegal to get any closer to a whale. Also, it’s illegal for any aircraft to operate within 1,000 feet.

“One of our core missions is the protection of marine mammals, so it’s crucial that we work closely with our federal, state and local partners to ensure that the maritime community is keeping their distance when they transit,” said Roberts, who oversees the Coast Guard’s close coordination with federal and state partners on marine mammal issues.

One of the strategies of the Coast Guard’s Ocean Steward, a program dedicated to the preservation of marine resources, is to partner with other agencies to create a force multiplier. The program provides a road map to ensure the nation’s waterways and ecosystems remain productive by protecting all the nation’s living marine resources.

“By partnering with NOAA and DOCARE, we’ve been able to increase our presence,” said Roberts. “Units have been more active in protecting endangered species this year than in the last decade.”

The Coast Guard’s efforts to protect humpback whales are not limited to surface patrols. 14th District crewmembers act as first responders to entanglements and other marine mammal distress calls, and they are often the reporting source to NOAA and DOCARE. While on routine patrols, Coast Guard rescue helicopter crews from Air Station Barbers Point sometimes spot distressed marine mammals. The aircrews play an important role by relaying important information to surface assets.

“About twice a year we attend training with NOAA officers on Maui when they hold courses on disentanglement training techniques providing us with the knowledge to free an entangled whale so we don’t cause any further injury,” said Seaman Garrett Dailey, a boat crewmember at Station Maui. “They also go over all the laws concerning rights of approach and the distance to be away from the whales.”

The Coast Guard assists with an average of 12 whale entanglements each season and transports numerous marine mammals that are in danger to safer locations.

Mariners and citizens are asked to report injured or entangled marine mammals to the Coast Guard on VHF marine band channel 16 or at 808-842-2600 or by contacting the NOAA fisheries hotline at 800-853-1964.

For more information, please visit the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Web site at http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov/.

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