The comeback of the humpback

NAWILIWILI — Fewer than 1,500 humpbacks were left in the North Pacific in 1966, the year international whaling was banned. Since then, their numbers have steadily climbed to an estimated 18,000.

As the recovery effort continues, federal officials are considering new species to be protected under the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

However, some residents remain concerned that this could potentially expand the sanctuary’s jurisdiction to include nearly every beach in Hawai‘i, negatively affecting daily ocean-users.

“We want to create a sanctuary that’s meaningful for Hawai‘i, where everyone feels they have ownership of it,” Sanctuary Superintendent Malia Chow said.

She said she has already experienced hardships while working with the community since the beginning of the sanctuary management plan review process.

“I think there’s very strong positions on one side or the other, and I see the role of the sanctuary basically facilitating it,” she said. “It’s not an easy role to have because everyone feels like they lose a little.”

The sanctuary provides a relatively safe breeding and birthing area for humpbacks who swim to Hawai‘i every winter for its warmer waters.

“Of the major reading in calving areas in the North Pacific, Hawai‘i is the largest,” said Jean Souza, Kaua‘i program coordinator for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Agency.

NOAA is continuing its review of the sanctuary’s management plan, which is still 2.5 years from completion. As part of that process, officials are looking at including the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the critically endangered hawksbill sea turtle, the threatened green, loggerhead and olive Ridley turtles, the Hawaiian spinner dolphin and coral reefs.

The plan also considers developing a humpback whale discovery center to serve as an educational facility, a meeting or lecture space, wetlab classroom, and an ocean-focused, Hawaiian culture and hands-on learning center.

“One of the frustrations with the current facility that we have here in Hawai‘i is not having enough space to hold trainings, hold meetings and other events,” Souza said.

On Wednesday Chow and Souza gave Kaua‘i County Council members a status report on the plan.

Currently, the process is in its working-groups phase, where advisory council members, stakeholders, technical experts and community members work together to provide a list of recommendations on how to address issues.

The next phases will include action plans, a draft management plan, an environmental assessment and a final management plan. The process is scheduled to be completed by 2014.

Ongoing controversy

Last year a series of public meetings to broaden the scope of the sanctuary raised concerns all over Kaua‘i, especially from those who utilize the ocean regularly for commercial and recreational means.

The sanctuary is in five separate protected areas, covering 1,370 square miles of federal and state waters from the shoreline to a depth of 100 fathoms, or 600 feet. It has five offices on four islands.

The areas include portions of Kaua‘i’s and O‘ahu’s northern shores, the Penguin Bank west of Moloka‘i, the channels between Lana‘i, Moloka‘i and Maui, and Big Island’s northwest coast near Kealakekua Bay.

Many residents raised strong concerns that the federal government, by widening the sanctuary to include other species, could potentially bring stricter federal ocean regulations to the entire ocean surrounding the Islands.

The public meetings held in 2010 strove to clarify misinformation and cool off tempers, especially among fishermen and other daily ocean-users such as surfers.

“There was a tremendous amount of hysteria against the sanctuary when we first started having these meetings,” Westside resident Gordon LaBedz said. “Lots of people said the federal government is going to come in and lock up our beaches, and prohibit surfing, and prohibit fishing, and prohibit whale watching.”

He said that now that all have “simmered down” he wanted to acknowledge the council and NOAA representatives for not getting sucked in all that “silliness.”

“I acknowledge that people are afraid of rules when they never had rules before,” he said. “Rules may come in to protect our environment, and I think we all know that’s a good idea because our environment is in trouble.”

But there are many still unconvinced that a sanctuary expansion would benefit them.

Local marine biologist Carl Berg said not everyone is in support of the sanctuary, and there’s no need for NOAA to have control over areas where the state already has jurisdiction.

He said he was “extremely active” in promoting the whale sanctuary on Kaua‘i in the 1990s. At that time NOAA had “tremendous resistance” against having the sanctuary here; they wanted to concentrate in one place, he said.

“I have serious concerns about this ocean-grab, or trying to expand the boundaries to new areas,” said Berg, adding that the state’s and NOAA’s budgets are “stressed.”

He said NOAA staff is “in a sense fighting for their jobs trying to make sure we have this sanctuary,” when there’s already an ecosystem sanctuary in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — which is the nation’s largest marine reserve.

Berg said he supports a humpback discovery center, but one that NOAA can be a part of as opposed to running it.

Chow said no state dollars are going to support the sanctuary; the funding will come from the federal government.


The increase in the humpback whale population in the North Pacific has been credited to the whaling ban and to federal laws added to protect whales, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s, according to NOAA.

The sanctuary, managed jointly by NOAA and the state, was established in 1992 by Congress to protect the whales and their habitat in the Main Hawaiian Islands. The sanctuary achieved full designation after its first management plan was completed in June 1997.

In 2002, the plan was reviewed during a process which included public comment.

In 2007, the state and the sanctuary worked together to produce a report considering including additional species to the sanctuary.

On Feb. 28, 2008, then-Gov. Linda Lingle wrote a letter in support of considering inclusion of turtles and other marine mammals to the sanctuary.

Recently, in a process initiated in 2009 with a Sanctuary Advisory Council meeting, the sanctuary has been going through another management plan review process to address emerging issues and increase management effectiveness, according to NOAA.

Since the new plan has been initiated, NOAA has conducted at least 10 statewide public meetings — plus eight pre-scoping meetings — in all the main islands, three advisory committee meetings, a 90-day public comment period and a scoping report.

The plan’s scoping period produced 1,235 submissions from all over the world from a wide range or sources, including community members, agencies, organizations and elected officials. The submissions were separated into three categories; list of issues, potential solutions and overarching considerations.

Still endangered

Although the number of humpbacks have been increasing, the whales remain endangered. Some isolated populations of humpbacks, mainly in the Western Pacific Ocean, still exist in low numbers, according to NOAA’s SPLASH (Structure of Population, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks) project.

Over 400 researchers, 50 organizations and 10 countries joined efforts to come up with a 2006 SPLASH report that found out the humpback population that migrates to Hawai‘i in the winter to be approximately 10,000 and have an annual growth of about 6 percent.

The humpback whales are believed to have an average life span of 40 to 45 years, Souza said.

“One of the reasons why Congress established the sanctuary to begin with, was because it’s the only state where the whales come to breed and calve,” said Souza, adding NOAA believes approximately 12,000 came to Hawai‘i this past whale season.

The remaining humpbacks of the North Pacific, approximately 8,000, spend the winters in the Western Pacific or down the coast of Mexico and Central America.

Berg said Japan has announced it will stop whaling temporarily, and there’s no cultural-resource hunting of humpbacks in Alaska.

The main threats humpbacks face in the sanctuary are entanglement, vessel collisions, acoustic disturbance, water quality and marine debris.

• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or lazambuja@


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