COAST GUARD STATION MAUI — Life is getting better for the thousands of humpback whales that make the trip from Alaska each winter to breed in Hawaii’s warm waters, but state and federal scientists, government officials and law enforcement officers are remaining vigilant.
A 16-member crew aboard the U.S. Coast Guard’s Galveston Island, a 110-foot cutter based in Honolulu, patrolled the south shore of Maui last week along with a 45-foot response boat and another vessel from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
As part of Operation Kohola Guardian, a joint effort that also includes the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, they were monitoring the catamarans and other tour boats providing customers the chance to see 60,000-pound whales breach and their newborn calves spout.
This distinct population of roughly 12,000 humpbacks was removed in October from the list of animals protected by the Endangered Species Act. But boat strikes and entanglements with fishing nets and marine debris still occur.
“It’s kind of a minefield,” said Ed Lyman, NOAA’s resource protection specialist and large whale entanglement response coordinator. “We check up on the tour boats, keep them honest.”
The boats are required to maintain a distance of 100 yards from humpbacks, but sometimes whales will swim closer out of curiosity.
“We’ve witnessed the charter vessels and the mariners actually taking really good caution in and around the whales, which is great to see,” said Coast Guard Lt. Ryan Ball, commanding officer of the Galveston Island. It was his second day of the weeklong patrol.
“Having the cutter out here provides greater visibility,” he said.
The crew was also ready to help free any entangled whales it encountered.
Lyman, sitting topside on the Galveston Island, laid out his specially made kit of tools to free whales and other animals that may get caught in fishing lines.
“It’s going to die if you don’t make that cut,” he said, displaying a dual-edged knife that attaches to a pole and is used to free a whale entangled in rope.
There hasn’t been an incident so far this whale season, which generally runs from November to March.
“There are still entanglements. There are still boat strikes,” Lyman said. “But it’s not overtly threatening the population.”
There were six entanglements during the 2015-16 whale season and 13 the season before that.
There’s also been fewer non-incidental boat strikes in recent years — collisions that occur through no fault of boat operators. There’s been one so far this season. There were two during the 2015-16 season and five the season before that.
The joint effort is about protecting people as well as whales.
NOAA and Coast Guard officials explained how humans may put themselves in danger by driving their boats too fast in prime whale territory or in some cases by trying to help a whale that seems to be in trouble.
“Now people go, ‘Siri, who do I call for a whale in distress?’” Lyman said, referring to a cell phone information source. “They’ll get our hotline.”
Operation Kohola Guardian is also about public awareness, which involves making key phone numbers available along with correct safety practices and guidelines for reporting an injured, entangled, stranded or ship-struck marine mammal.
NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Mammal Hotline phone number is 888-256-9840.
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