Proposed expansion of whale sanctuary draws controversy

PUHI — Nearly two decades have passed since the U.S. Congress designated the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

Now a management-plan review is proposing the inclusion of additional species in the sanctuary, which is drawing ire and frustration from many local residents.

“From day one they’ve been trying to kill our people with laws,” Anahola resident Kawika Kutcher said. “I’m not against protecting things, but I’m against protecting things over human life.”

Kutcher, a Native Hawaiian, said he spoke on behalf of his 5,000 relatives spread over Hawai‘i.

“We do not want any more laws,” he said. “We want to be able to live our culture the way we decide, not some government that doesn’t represent us.”

Kutcher, along with roughly 200 people that packed Wednesday the KCC Learning Resource Center (library), watched for nearly an hour seven panelists respond to a simple question: Should we have a humpback whale sanctuary on Kaua‘i?

Whale sanctuary

On Kaua‘i the existing boundary of the sanctuary represents only a relatively small portion of the North Shore. On O‘ahu the sanctuary takes most of the waters of the North Shore, Honolulu and Diamond Head. On the Big Island the sanctuary is located on the northwestern portion of the island.

The sanctuary’s major area includes the waters in the channels linking Moloka‘i, Lana‘i and Maui, plus several offshore miles to the west of Moloka‘i.

The sanctuary is jointly managed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The management-plan review is proposing to include monk seals, spinner dolphins and five species of sea turtles, according to NOAA. It also proposes to include maritime-heritage resources such as historic downed aircraft and sunken ships.

Panel

Malia Chow, from the NOAA humpback whale sanctuary, said that in 2007 the agency submitted to the governor a full assessment of the species facing additional threats, including the reasons the agency feels those species should be included in the sanctuary.

“Governor Linda Lingle, in 2007 responded with a letter, and said: ‘I want you to go ahead with this process, we are in support of it,’” Chow said. “This is really where we are today.”

Chow said the plan is a multi-year process, and there are many steps to go through with the new governor to make sure there will be support.

NOAA has held over 20 meetings, plus a public-input period that has not expired, she said.

“The sanctuary is not proposing to shut out ocean uses,” Chow said. “We do not have the authority to do that, and that is not our intention.”

Chow said the agency wants instead to facilitate commercial and recreational uses.

Not all of those attending the meeting, however, agreed with her.

Fisherman Greg Holzman of Kekaha, who spoke as a panelist, said the inclusion of other species in the sanctuary would bring added restrictions, plus increase the physical boundaries of sanctuary.

“There are over eight different laws protecting all of these species,” Holzman said. “Do we want the federal government to put in another layer of protection, with increased violations, penalties … into our state waters?”

Holzman said whenever the federal government has taken control of Kaua‘i’s coastal areas, it has added user-restrictions to it.

Dr. Carl Berg, representing the Surfrider Foundation, said the nonprofit organization, despite rumors, did not state it wants to close down beaches and get rid of net fishing. Those are “extrapolations” of what Surfrider had proposed in a meeting last May.

Berg said that what Surfrider Foundation had proposed in that meeting was to expand the sanctuary to areas around Kaua‘i, to set a 14-knot speed limit there, to reduce noise and eliminate pollution, and to regulate extraction of resources.

The nonprofit also proposed to label and track large cargo and Asian fishing nets, which are a threat to whales, said Berg, adding that banning small fishing nets was never mentioned. Each island should have a whale and dolphin rehabilitation center, he said.

Berg also said the sanctuary’s budget, and what has been done with it, should be disclosed. The three-year timeline for the management plan is “absurdly long,” and the community should know more about it, he said.

State Rep. Mina Morita, D-Kapa‘a-Hanalei, said the challenge is to identify areas where the endangered species can survive and maintain healthy populations.

“There’s no doubt that Hawai‘i’s fisheries are in decline,” she said.

Fishing is a significant factor in keeping the islands’ lifestyle and culture, Morita said, but is also an important resource which is dependent on maintaining a healthy ecosystem.

Indiscriminate fishing, the lack of comprehensive marine management, reasonable regulations and enforcement have put marine resources in jeopardy, Morita said.

“Having a healthy fisheries is important to our food-security issue,” said Morita, adding that the management-plan review of the sanctuary could be seized as an opportunity to redirect federal resources to identify what it would take to restore the marine ecosystem.

“We can either fish ourselves to extinction, or we can work together to rebuild our fisheries to serve generations after us,” she said.

Pohaikalani Kirkland, monk seal outreach coordinator, said the question should be how to improve the existing whale sanctuary.

She proposed community members apply for seats on the humpback whale sanctuary council.

“No fish, no fisherman,” she said, quoting Morita from a recent letter to The Garden Island.

Sharon Pomroy, from the Traditional Practices Appointed Commission, said there’s no need for a sanctuary on Kaua‘i.

“If we’re going to have a sanctuary we should have a say in it, and not let NOAA, Marine Fisheries, West PAC (Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council) or anybody else tell us ‘this is how your sanctuary is going to be,’” Pomroy said.

The last panelist to speak, Capt. Ken Lewis, from the University of Hawai‘i Marine Option Program, said he’s on the edge of the fence on the issue, because for 25 years he has made a living taking tourists up and down Kaua‘i’s coastline.

Lewis said it looks like the marine sanctuary is not going away.

“It’s here, and we all have to live with that,” he said. “But maybe we can find a benefit for fishermen. Maybe we can find a benefit for tour operators. Maybe we can find a benefit for the Hawaiian community.”

The discussion was supposed to include additional questions from the audience to the panelists. But with only one hour for the whole event, only Kutcher and two other members of the audience were allowed to speak.

Kutcher, instead of questioning the panelists, gave an emotional statement and was applauded by the majority of those present at the meeting.

“I tired, I tired, excuse me, I tired, I tired of everybody trying to put me in one box, and tell me what’s right and wrong as one kanaka,” said Kutcher, on the brink of tears.

“I’m tired of people using my kala, my tax money, to push their agendas. I tired, so is the manini coalition, and I speak for all 5,000 of us. We tired. Leave us alone. Enforce the existing laws, and a‘ole to the whale sanctuary expansion.”

When the meeting was over, heated discussion ensued because audience members wanted more opportunity to question the panelists.

Mediator Moksha McClure explained that the agreed-upon, one-hour limit was because students had to go back to class, but she volunteered to stay longer. The panelists also agreed to stay longer, and only a few members of the audience ended up leaving.

The discussion went on for an extra 45 minutes, “until they told us we had to get out,” Holzman said.

Sanctuary system

The National Marine Sanctuary System has two sanctuaries in Polynesia, including the one in Hawai‘i, five on the West Coast, five on the East Coast, one in the Great Lakes, plus two national monuments in Polynesia, including Papahanaumokuakea (in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands).

The spinner dolphins are not listed as endangered or threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The hawksbill and leatherback turtles are critically endangered. The green, loggerhead and olive Ridley turtles are threatened.

The Hawaiian monk seal faces the biggest threat, as they are listed as critically endangered and heading toward extinction.

NOAA states that there are approximately 1,100 monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and that juveniles and sub-adults in that population have a “very low” survival rate.

In the main Hawaiian Islands the survival rate is better, but its population totals roughly 150 seals.

Go to http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov for more information.

Proposed expansion of whale sanctuary draws controversy

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