New recommendations are directly aimed at tour boats and other small vessels, but they’re currently voluntary.

This year marks the first full whale season with the new, official guidelines for how fast boats should travel near humpback whales in Hawaiian waters, and state legislators are considering resolutions that urge regulators to make those recommended speeds mandatory.

However, the state agency that would have to enforce those speed recommendations opposes the move.

Enforcing such speed limits, which would require most boats approaching humpback whales in Hawaii to slow to 6 knots, about 7 mph, would be impractical, the Department of Land and Natural Resources has repeatedly testified throughout this year’s legislative session.

Further, local whale experts who helped craft the speed guidelines said the community members who participated in that process, including whale tour operators, were told the intent was not to make the guidelines into law later.

Some lawmakers are urging state officials to make recommended speed limits around humpback whales mandatory in Hawaiian waters. (Marina Starleaf Riker/Civil Beat/2023/NOAA Permit No. 19655)

“We wanted universal best practices for Hawaii,” said Jens Currie, chief scientist with the Maui-based Pacific Whale Foundation. He helped develop those standards with a Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council working group.

“We wanted to work with the boating community to show that they could self-regulate and implement their best-practices to reduce potential disturbance and collision,” he added. 

‘Deterrent Value’

Nonetheless, some Hawaii-based conservationists have pressed to make the speeds mandatory. 

“We’ve got to stop hitting these whales. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a lawsuit against the state for not doing enough about it,” Ted Bohlen of the Hawaii Reef and Ocean Coalition testified during a Senate Water and Land Committee hearing last month

Just because something is hard to enforce doesn’t mean that it should not be a rule, he said, adding that “having a rule on the books … has a deterrent value in itself.”

The Senate earlier this week adopted Senate Resolution 157, which urges DLNR to make administrative rules regulating vessel speeds around humpback whales. Both chambers are also considering a separate, similar resolution, Senate Concurrent Resolution 219, which would carry more weight.

SR 157 notably carves out exceptions for Matson Inc. and other large cargo boats and interisland vessels, which asked lawmakers that they be excluded.

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Currie and Ed Lyman, a natural resource specialist with the National Marine Sanctuary, both said that the speed guidelines and best practices established last year were directed at the smaller vessels and boats that actively pursue and approach the large mammals. 

The new guidelines for boats in Hawaiian waters were never meant to target big shipping and transport vessels such as those run by Matson and Young Brothers or other large interisland vessels, they said. Instead, they were geared toward boats 65 feet in length or less, which are involved in most of the whale collisions in Hawaiian waters by far, according to Currie and Lyman.

“You don’t have a Matson transport approaching a whale” as tour operators and small private boats often do, Currie said.

Nonetheless, Matson has faced mounting scrutiny by scientists and conservationists for its vessel speeds off the California coast and the potential impacts on separate, endangered whale species in that region, and the Hawaii shipper’s refusal to slow down there.

Meanwhile, Maui state Sen. Angus McKelvey said at the March 24 Water and Land Committee hearing that guidance on speed alone isn’t effective.

“The fact of the matter is, there’s all sorts of incidents happening – a lot of them with whale tour boats, where they’re chasing whales to get the customers a better view,” McKelvey said. “The best practices approach isn’t working because why would you listen? You’ve got paying customers; we’re going to get the best shot of the whale.” 

“All rules need enforceability,” McKelvey said. 

DLNR declined to comment on the matter earlier this week.

What The Numbers Show

So far this season there have been six reported boat collisions with whales, according to Lyman. That’s down from 10 last year, but the number of reports fluctuates year to year, according to the federal data he provided. 

That data shows six reported collisions in 2021 and 12 in 2020.

Overall, there have been 143 reported humpback whale collisions in Hawaii since 1979. Most of those struck were calves and juveniles.

Those reported incidents have impacted at least 149 whales, including the calves that were known to be present when their adult mothers were hit, he added. 

In this 2013 photo, provided by NOAA and taken off the coast of Maui, a humpback calf with its mother can be seen with wounds on its torso caused by a boat propeller.
In this photo taken off the coast of Maui, a humpback calf with its mother can be seen with wounds on its torso caused by a boat propeller. (Credit: J. Moore/NOAA/2013)

Lyman acknowledged many incidents could have gone unreported. Efforts to record reports of collisions weren’t as strong or effective in previous years but started to improve in the mid-1990s, he said.

This season, two of the six reported collisions occurred during rainy conditions on Jan. 28. In the first instance, a Maui-based tour operator reported hitting a humpback calf, Lyman said. 

Those aboard reported seeing blood in the water following the strike, he added. However, no injured calves were spotted by authorities who took to the water that day to investigate after the collision, Lyman said.

The new guidelines recommend that boats travel no faster than 15 knots through waters where whales are known to be present, even if they’re not approaching one of the animals.

The whale tour operator that struck the calf reported their boat was traveling 11 knots, Lyman said. 

Investigators determined that the tour operator had adhered to federal guidance on visibility because the water was still relatively calm even though conditions were rainy and cloudy, Lyman added.

“We’ve got to stop hitting these whales.”

Ted Bohlen of the Hawaii Reef and Ocean Coalition

Later that day, a whale collided with a separate tour boat that was stationary off Maui. The giant mammal’s tail swept across part of the vessel, damaging it and knocking a crew member overboard, according to Lyman. The crew member was later found to be OK, he added.

Since 1979, at least 69 of the reported collisions took place off Maui. There were 14 on Kauai, four on Lanai, nine on Oahu and 14 on Hawaii island, according to Lyman. The rest of the locations were unknown based on the reports.

Ed Lyman aboard a NOAA whale boat. (Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2017)

Maui is where most of the humpbacks are known to go, but Lyman said the number could also be higher there because there’s so much heightened local interest on Maui in keeping track of the incidents compared to other islands.

The mammals are no longer listed as endangered species, but they’re still afforded protections under the sanctuary, Lyman said.

He added that the state could enforce a speed limit if given enough resources.

“It can be done. There’s challenges, but it could be done. Are the resources there right now? No, there’s not,” he said.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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