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Scientists seeking to slow boats to spare humpback whales

February 26, 2013
The Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) - Some scientists are calling for stricter rules on boat traffic after a spate of collisions between vessels and endangered humpback whales in Hawaii waters.

If safeguards aren't instituted, some scientists and environmentalists fear that even more collisions will occur in the future, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

Since the end of December, there have been nine reports of vessel-humpback whale collisions in Hawaii waters. Eight of those have occurred in the past month. Incidents include a report that on Feb. 14 a humpback was seen off Maui with propeller slices on its body. Two days later, a female whale and calf surfaced under a vessel and left blood in the water. The following day, a vessel and a whale collided off Lahaina and the whale's left flank was bleeding.

Scientists say that reports of vessel-whale collisions increased from one to four per year in 2001-05 to five to 11 per year in 2006-10. The challenge, they say, is in determining the gravity of collisions. In most instances, the whales disappear before any injuries can be assessed.

"What's the point of having a sanctuary if it's not safe?" said researcher Marsha Green, referring to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary is the only place designated as a protected habitat for humpback whales.

State and federal officials currently are reviewing a proposed management plan for the sanctuary, which was designated by Congress in 1992 and serves as a major calving area for female humpback whales.

An advisory group has recommended a 16 mph speed limit on boats in the 1,370-square-mile sanctuary. The advisory group also is suggesting that sanctuary officials consider expanding its boundary and its protection to other species.

Commercial operators contend that more restrictions are not needed because humpback whales are thriving. The number of humpback whales that frequent Hawaii has jumped to an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 from just 1,000 in 1979. However, the number is below the original 15,000 to 20,000 before whaling began, federal officials have said.

Maui Adventure Cruises Capt. Pat Stenger, who conducts snorkeling tours off Lanai, said his boat handles better traveling at 17 knots because it reaches a speed capable of taking ocean troughs. He said reducing the speed would lessen the riding comfort for passengers.

"The bottom line really is the whales have recovered fabulously," said David Jung, who has operated his Molokai Princess ferry for 25 years. "And what is the sense of piling on more laws that are absolutely not needed?"



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