Updated 4:15 p.m., 8/24/2016

Federal officials proposed a new rule Tuesday that would prohibit approaching Hawaiian spinner dolphins within 50 yards in designated waters between Maui, Lanai and Kahoolawe where they are found throughout the day, a release says.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is seeking comments through Oct. 23, and plans to hold six public hearings next month. The prohibitions would likely not take effect until September 2017.

The action is necessary to protect the health and sustainability of spinner dolphins by reducing human activities that hurt them, NOAA says.

NOAA is proposing a ban on swimming with or even getting too close in a boat to Hawaiian spinner dolphins in certain waters.
NOAA is proposing a ban on swimming with or even getting too close in a boat to Hawaiian spinner dolphins in certain waters. Flickr: Caroline Gagné

The rule would affect the numerous commercial tour operators who provide dolphin excursions.

Six exceptions are in the proposed rule:

  1. Persons who inadvertently come within 50 yards of a spinner dolphin, or who are approached by a Hawaiian spinner dolphin, provided they make no effort to engage or pursue the animals, and take immediate steps to move away from the animals.
  2. Vessels that are underway and approached by a Hawaiian spinner dolphin provided they continue normal navigation and make no effort to engage or pursue the animals.
  3. Vessels transiting to and from a port, harbor, or in a restricted channel when a 50-yard distance will not allow the vessel to maintain safe navigation.
  4. Vessel operations necessary to avoid an imminent and serious threat.
  5. Activities authorized through a permit or authorization issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service to take Hawaiian spinner dolphins.
  6. Federal, State, and local government vessels when necessary in the course performing official duties.

Update The Department of Land and Natural Resources announced its support for the proposed rules for spinner dolphins in a release Wednesday.

“We believe NOAA’s preferred option is reasonable,” Bruce Anderson, administrator of DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources, said. “Two of the five initial alternatives involved closing off entire areas designated as essential daytime habitats. We felt that was going a little too far, but we can support approach rules and eliminating swim-with-dolphins activities.”

Anderson said DLNR will recommend NOAA expand the regulations so they apply to the full limit allowable, which is out to 200 miles, instead of just going out to two miles as proposed.

“We don’t see a rationale for the two-mile limit,” he said.

The feds are also toying with the idea of “time-area closures” for four bays on the Big Island and one bay on Maui. This could mean closing down the area from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., for instance, to certain activities. It could be a mandatory thing or voluntary.

The bays identified for such closures are Kealakekua, Honaunau, Kauhako, Makako and La Perouse. No rules have been proposed at this point, but NOAA said in a realease that it is being considered.

The public meetings for the proposed spinner-dolphin rule are set for:

  • 5:30 to 10 p.m., Sept. 7, at Konawaena High School cafeteria in Kealakekua
  • 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sept. 8, at Kealakehe High School cafeteria in Kona
  • 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sept. 21, at Kauai High School cafeteria in Lihue
  • 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sept. 22, at Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Visitor Center in Kihei
  • 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sept. 27, at Roosevelt High School dining Hall in Honolulu
  • 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Sept. 28, at Waianae High School cafeteria in Waianae

The rule will be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday. A draft environmental impact statement will follow Friday, and then the 60-day public comment period will open.

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