Coast Guard provides enforcement for humpback whale sanctuary

by Petty Officer 3rd Class Luke Clayton, U.S. Coast Guard

HONOLULU — Whale season is wrapping up in Hawaii, but U.S. Coast Guard crews are still on the lookout as they scan for interactions between vessels and the big creatures below the surface around the Hawaiian Islands.

It’s estimated that more than 10,000 humpback whales migrated from Alaska to their southern home in the warm waters of Hawaii this past season. Coast Guard crews routinely patrol the waters around Hawaii — particularly the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary — to ensure mariners mind the presence of these friendly giants.

Coast Guard crews respond frequently to mariners in distress, clean up oil and pollutants, service aids to navigation and numerous other operations. During humpback whale season, a special mission is added to the list of many, dubbed “Operation Kohola Guardian.” The Coast Guard aims to protect both the safety of mariners as well as the endangered humpback whales while in the sanctuary (HIHWNMS for short).

Whales migrate to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (established Nov. 4, 1992, and located mostly in the “triangle” of water between Maui, Lanai, and Molokai, and including waters off Oahu) from November to May, with the largest amount of animals generally occurring between January and March. This becomes the breeding and calving grounds for the protected species. There is another species that uses the area as well — humans, and it’s the Coast Guard’s enforcement mission to ensure interactions are kept to a minimum.

Hawaii is a maritime state and citizens work and play in the waters that surround the islands and may not know that this area is shared with marine mammal friends of the deep. So, that’s where the Coast Guard and other agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the state of Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources step in.

Coast Guard crews conduct weekly sanctuary patrols to ensure citizens and marine life stay safe. Collisions can harm the boater as well as the whale. Weighing an average of 45 tons, a humpback whale colliding with a mariner can be catastrophic.

According to NOAA, there are at least a handful of whale collisions near the Hawaiian Islands every year. For the Coast Guardsmen on patrol, and other agencies who are responsible for the whales’ protection, one collision is too many.

Coast Guard patrol boats and helicopters scan the area for signs of whales. The crews will 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.

“This season, Coast Guard crews spent more than 600 hours patrolling the sanctuary,” said Eric Roberts, the 14th Coast Guard District’s Marine Protected Species Program Manager. “For the first time, NOAA’s Office for Law Enforcement (OLE) officers have regularly flown in HH-65 Dolphin helicopters and deployed on Coast Guard patrol boats to help enforce humpback whale approach regulations.”

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 for the mission.

“By partnering with NOAA and other agencies, 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 occurrence of vessel collisions with humpback whales in Hawaii has increased in recent years. NOAA has confirmed 38 vessel strikes in Hawaiian waters from 1975 to 2007.  Seven of those 38 ship strikes occurred during the 2006 whale season and six occurred during the 2007 whale season. Precautions must be taken to ensure collisions are minimal, said Roberts.

“If a humpback whale is sighted, it is advised to stay well outside of the 100-yard approach regulation,” said Roberts. “Keeping your speed down when whales are known to be in the area is also another precaution.  Whales break the surface of the water without always knowing what lies above them. If a vessel were to be in that path, the results could be devastating.”

Another side of the Coast Guard’s efforts to protect humpback whales and other marine mammals is responding to distressed animals. The Coast Guard acts as first responders to entanglements and stranding reports supporting NOAA and the state of Hawaii’s agencies. Rescue helicopters can locate an entangled whale and relay important information to surface assets.

University of Hawaii scientists estimate as many as one third of whales found in the sanctuary are entangled or show signs of recent entanglement. 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. Eleven transplants have been successfully completed this season.

“Over the last seven years scientists say the ‘stock’ (whale population) has increased,” said Roberts. “It’s good to know the Coast Guard contributed to saving whales and giving hope to an endangered species.”

Coast Guard crews assisted NOAA six times in February 2009 to aid in whale entanglement releases, safety zone violations, Hawaiian monk seal transportation and deceased whale sightings.

“We’re grateful for the help of the Coast Guard,” said Wendy Goo, Area Communications Officer for NOAA. “We couldn’t do it without them.”

The Coast Guard Ocean Steward plan provides a road map for agencies efforts to ensure the nation’s waterways and ecosystems remain productive by protecting all the nation’s living marine resources.

The Coast Guard has protected marine mammals since the Fur Seal Act of 1897. Fur seals were being hunted into extinction due to the value of their coats. The Coast Guard greatly reduced the hunting of these precious animals by banning poaching.

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 hot line at 800-853-1964.

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