Whale of a response

LIHUE — Federal officials have collected more than 3,000 written testimonies about proposed changes to the humpback whale sanctuary.

Anne Walton, the sanctuary’s program analyst, said staff members for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will spend the coming months sorting the testimonies and replying with general responses based on the subject matter addressed in the comments.

NOAA staff will then begin to draft a final management plan, a process Walton said could take about a year. The plan must be approved by Congress and signed by the governor before it can be implemented.

“What’s going to be included and what’s not going to be included in the plan will change based on what’s in the comments,” she said.

The 90-day public comment period ended Friday. As of Thursday, NOAA had received 3,074 comments, Walton said. Officials are still tallying those postmarked or emailed on Friday.

At issue is a new management plan for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The crux of the proposal is a sanctuary boundary expansion to include 235 square miles of new state and federal waters around Kauai, Niihau and Oahu, bringing the total sanctuary area to 1,601 square miles. The plan would also extend the sanctuary’s focus from just whales to other marine species and generate new opportunities to work closely with community groups on priority resource protection issues.

All told, the plan calls for a 16 percent expansion of sanctuary waters around Kauai, with add-ons in Haena, Hanalei and Kilauea.

In Haena, the western boundary of the sanctuary would be extended to include the full Haena Community-Based Subsistence Fishing Area. In Hanalei, the sanctuary border would broaden to include portions of the Hanalei River. The plan for the Kilauea coast is to create a designated area to pilot traditional Hawaiian marine management approaches alongside modern science-informed techniques to restore the degraded coral reef.

All proposed changes to the current sanctuary border are the result of requests made by community members, according to NOAA officials.

But it’s the three-nautical mile expansion around Niihau that drew the most fire from locals who fish there during a three-day public hearing in May. Dozens of locals expressed fears that including the waters around Niihau in the sanctuary management plan might eventually lead to fishing restrictions.

In 2013, the Robinson family asked the state to establish a “no-fishing zone” around Niihau for all people other than the island’s small resident population. The Robinsons also requested that Niihau waters be included in the sanctuary expansion.

But restrictions on fishing have no part in NOAA’s proposed expansion. In fact, preserving sanctuary waters for fishing, diving and surfing — not just for the protection of the humpback whale — is all part of the plan’s intent, according to Sanctuary Superintendent Malia Chow, who lead the public hearings.

Blowback from the public over the Niihau expansion in particular dominated the public hearings on Kauai. Following the hearings, Chow said she received at least a dozen emails from sanctuary supporters who said they were too intimidated to give public comment because the atmosphere was so contentious. Chow said she herself did not feet safe at times during the hearings because some members of the public were combative.

These are among the biggest reasons Chow said the Kauai public hearings were ineffective.

“I feel like we failed in trying to have a fair public process,” she said at the time. “Instead there was a lot of intimidation.”

Chow on Monday referred questions about the sanctuary plan to Walton.

Co-managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Hawaii, the sanctuary aims to protect humpback whales and their habitat while educating the public on the relationship between humpbacks and Hawaii’s marine environment. It is one of the most important humpback habitats in the world.

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