Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
2010 Condition Report

Photo of a whale bubble feeding

Response to Pressures

This section provides a summary of existing and proposed responses to pressures on marine resources of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. Existing sanctuary responses and management actions are enacted to implement the final regulations issued by NOAA and to protect natural resources of the sanctuary.

Sanctuary Management

The sanctuary covers approximately 3,550 square kilometers (1,370 square miles) of federal and state territory within the main Hawaiian Islands. To ensure fair management of this multi-jurisdictional area, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the state of Hawai'i signed an intergovernmental compact agreement in 1997. This enables the sanctuary to operate as a partnership between NOAA and the Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR).

The sanctuary has sought to strengthen its working relationships with other government agencies and organizations involved in protecting humpback whales and their habitat in Hawai'i. This approach is aimed at increasing flexibility, mobilizing staff resources, avoiding duplication and broadening opportunities for citizen participation in ocean stewardship. A cooperative management strategy has been very effective in capitalizing on the sanctuary's strengths in education and public outreach. While many agencies share the mission of protecting humpback whales, the sanctuary is unique in its vigorous efforts to communicate the public interests at stake in humpback whale habitat in Hawai'i.

Existing Regulations

There are three federal acts, as well as multiple state statutes, that protect humpback whales in the Hawaiian Islands. The federal acts are the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and the Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary Act. The ESA of 1973 provides for the conservation of species at risk of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of their range, and the conservation of the ecosystems on which they depend. The MMPA of 1972 established a moratorium, with certain exceptions, on the taking of marine mammals in U.S. waters and by U.S. citizens on the high seas, as well as the importing of marine mammals and marine mammal products into the United States.

Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary Act regulations prohibit the following activities in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary waters:

  • Approaching, or causing a vessel or other object to approach, within the sanctuary, by any means, within 100 yards of any humpback whale except as authorized under the MMPA and the ESA;
  • Operating any aircraft above the sanctuary within 1,000 feet of any humpback whale, except as authorized under the MMPA and the ESA;
  • Taking any humpback whale in the sanctuary except as authorized under the MMPA and the ESA;
  • Possessing within the sanctuary (regardless of where taken) any living or dead humpback whale, or part thereof, taken in violation of the MMPA or the ESA;
  • Discharging or depositing any material or other matter in the sanctuary;
  • Altering the seabed of the sanctuary; and
  • Discharging or depositing any material or other matter outside the sanctuary if the discharge or deposit subsequently enters and injures a humpback whale or humpback whale habitat, provided that such activity: (i) requires a federal or state permit, license, lease or other authorization; and (ii) is conducted without such permit, license, lease or other authorization, or not in compliance with the terms or conditions of such permit, license, lease or other authorization.

Sanctuary Education and Outreach Programs

The sanctuary's mission is to enhance public awareness, understanding and appreciation of the marine environment (Figure 18). The sanctuary has focused its education program on making its constituents aware of humpback whales and the ocean they live in, with the understanding that ocean-literate citizens will help protect not only endangered humpback whales, but also all natural resources. To address the issue of ocean literacy, the sanctuary implements a variety of activities that focus on three major areas: enhancing learning opportunities, increasing ocean awareness, and promoting ocean stewardship (HIHWNMS 2007).

Figure 18. Students learn about marine science on an in-the-field experience on the NOAA ship Hi�ialakai. (Photos: NOAA)
Figure 18. Students learn about marine science on an in-the-field experience on the NOAA ship Hi'ialakai. (Photos: NOAA)

Sanctuary Volunteer-Based Water Quality Monitoring Program: Utilizing Citizen Science

Water quality has been identified as an important issue among the general public across Hawai'i. Beach users and community-based groups have stated concerns over injection wells, vessel discharge and water quality conditions throughout the waters of Hawai'i. The sanctuary also recognizes water quality as an important issue, and sanctuary outreach and education specialists actively pursue ways to better engage the public and inform them about issues relating to water quality.

The sanctuary volunteer-based water quality monitoring program was started in 2008 and has been funded by equipment donations, small grants and the commitment of a core group of volunteers. The monitoring program is focused on four sites along south Maui's coastline. Volunteers test each site weekly for salinity, temperature, pH, turbidity and Enterococcus spp. bacteria (indicator bacteria that are used to detect the presence of human sewage in the water, which can cause gastrointestinal illnesses). The data collected by these efforts are entered online through the newly established online Coral Reef Monitoring Data Portal website.

These data serve multiple purposes. At the end of the year, the findings are submitted to the EPA as an additional measure of county water quality trends. The bacterial readings that breach regulatory thresholds are sent to the Hawai'i Department of Health as they are collected to alert them of potential water quality conditions that may be of concern to human and environmental health. The continual monitoring of basic water quality parameters also helps to establish baseline data, which assist in tracking trends in coastal water quality conditions.

Currently, state monitoring efforts of all waters around Maui consist of only one person. Community-based programs can serve an important role in helping to fill in the gaps in existing data, as well as raise awareness among the community members.

Habitat Mapping of the Sanctuary

Figure 19. Bathymetric map of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.
Figure 19. Bathymetric map of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.(Source: Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary)

Bathymetry is the study of the underwater depth of ocean or lake floors. Figure 19 is an example of a bathymetric map of the sanctuary. Mapping cruises were conducted over the past five years, and it is estimated that 87 percent of the sanctuary has now been mapped. This advancement in documenting the sanctuary includes the complete mapping of Penguin Bank, an important habitat for humpback whales in Hawai'i. The characteristics of the area bounded by Maui, Moloka'i, Lāna'i and Kaho'olawe, along with the extension of the shallow Penguin Bank southwest of Moloka'i, represent a unique, semi-enclosed, shallow protected sea in the midst of an expansive ocean. In 1997, at the time of the initial sanctuary Environmental Impact Statement and Management Plan, very little information had been published about the specific characteristics of this inter-island area. The bathymetry data collected during a research cruise in 2005 were added to the synthesis in order to make a preliminary assessment of seafloor characteristics across the state. The synthesis, begun by the Hawai'i Underwater Research Lab (HURL), incorporates data from a wide variety of mapping groups, including academic, state and federal sources (HIHWNMS and SOH 2007a).

Sanctuary Research

The primary sanctuary research effort over the past several years has been coordinating and partially funding the Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks (SPLASH) project. The primary objectives of the SPLASH project are to improve the description of the stock structure of humpback whales in the North Pacific, to understand the abundance and trends of these stocks, and to assess the human impact on them. The program is a cooperative effort of researchers from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Japan, Russia, the Philippines and contributors from several Central American countries. Data is collected primarily through photo-identification of whale flukes and genetic analysis of biopsy tissue samples in the humpback whales' breeding and feeding grounds. The sanctuary, in partnership with the Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), coordinated seven SPLASH teams in Hawai'i, while conducting its own fieldwork on Penguin Bank and assisting with Maui, Kaua'i and the island of Hawai'i. Between 2004 and 2006, researchers in Hawai'i encountered 3,624 groups of whales, resulting in the identification of 6,478 individuals through photographs of their distinct tail patterns. In addition, SPLASH researchers collected 2,382 skin biopsies for gender identification and various other genetic and chemical analyses over the project's duration (Calambokidis et al. 2008). Some the results of this project have been reported throughout this document, while other data are still being analyzed.

In addition to SPLASH, the sanctuary has worked in partnership with the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program and private institutions such as the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and the Cascadia Research Collective to develop new techniques to assess the health of free-swimming humpback whales and the impact from and circumstances leading to humpback whale entanglement in fishing gear and marine debris. Most of the results from this research have been presented in various national and international venues.

Whale-Vessel Collisions and Entanglement

Vessel Traffic

To address a growing concern regarding the increased occurrence of collisions between vessels and humpback whales, sanctuary response and rescue experts currently investigate reported vessel-whale collisions whenever possible. The goal is to ascertain the true impact to the individual whale, as well as potential impacts to the population as a whole.

Figure 20. Participants prioritize recommendations at a workshop on management needs to minimize whale-vessel collisions. (Photo: NOAA)
Figure 20. Participants prioritize recommendations at a workshop on management needs to minimize whale-vessel collisions.(Photo: NOAA)
In 2003, the sanctuary advisory council vessel strike working group and its partners sponsored a workshop to assess ship strike risks to whales in Hawai'i and to identify possible actions to reduce the occurrence of vessel-whale collisions in Hawaiian waters and throughout the National Marine Sanctuary System (Figure 20). More than 75 resource managers, scientists, industry leaders and representatives of the marine community participated. Discussions and presentations during the workshop generally agreed that vessel collisions with whales are an issue to be aware of in Hawaiian waters, but it is not a critical problem at the present time. However, participants strongly supported monitoring efforts in order to improve management, including conducting assessments of whale population growth, whale behavior trends and increased ship traffic in waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands. Improving data collection and storage of information on the occurrence of vessel strikes and "near misses" with whales was also widely supported. In addition, the participants were also strongly in favor of increased education and outreach efforts as an important management tool for decreasing the incidence of whale-vessel collisions (NMSP 2003).

Since the 2003 workshop, the sanctuary has disseminated collision avoidance guidelines that have been featured annually in newspaper articles, lectures, workshops, harbor signs and outreach events and products. In 2006, the sanctuary implemented an Ocean Etiquette Campaign with targeted outreach activities including a brochure and seven boater workshops held throughout the islands (HIHWNMS and SOH 2007a).

Marine Debris and Fisheries Interactions

Figure 21. Efforts to disentangle a humpback whale in Hawaiian waters on Feb. 12, 2005. Rescuers position themselves to remove entangled gear from the whale. (Photo: HIHWNMS / NOAA MMHSRP Permit #932-1489)
Figure 21. Efforts to disentangle a humpback whale in Hawaiian waters on Feb. 12, 2005. Rescuers position themselves to remove entangled gear from the whale. (Photo: HIHWNMS / NOAA MMHSRP Permit #932-1489)
In order to address a growing concern regarding humpback whale entanglement, sanctuary response and rescue experts currently conduct on-water responses to reported entanglements whenever weather conditions and safety concerns permit. Additionally, follow-up investigations of reported entanglements are conducted whenever possible. In addition to freeing whales from what are sometimes life-threatening entanglements (Figure 21), the goals are to ascertain the true impact to the individual whale and potential impacts to the population as a whole. To date, sanctuary experts have removed over 1,900 meters (6,500 feet, or more than a mile) of line that has entangled humpback whales. Responders have also freed 15 whales from life-threatening entanglements, significantly increasing their chances for survival.

In 2002, the sanctuary, working with state and federal partners, spearheaded the creation of the Hawaiian Islands Entanglement Response Network. At the end of 2009, the network had more than 170 trained participants. Since 2002, the network has conducted more than 60 on-water entanglement responses, and successfully disentangled 15 humpback whales from life threatening entanglements. Locally, sanctuary personnel train others, help develop unique tools and techniques to free entangled large whales, and coordinate and participate in humpback whale entanglement response efforts in Hawaiian waters. Nationally, sanctuary personnel advise the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service on entanglement threat and response; lead whale disentanglement trainings; participate in fishermen and health assessment workshops; provide general outreach on entanglement threat; assist with disentanglement efforts in other regions (e.g., Alaska and New England); investigate gear removed from disentangled animals; study entanglement scarring as a measure of entanglement threat; and work with fishermen and others to reduce the threat of entanglement to humpback whales in Hawai'i. Internationally, sanctuary personnel have conducted disentanglement workshops in Mexico and New Zealand, and participate on the bycatch subcommittee of the International Whaling Commission's Scientific Committee (HIHWNMS and SOH 2007a).

Figure 22. The sanctuary�s Animal in Distress Database records reports of humpback whale entanglements and contact with vessels. The database is important in that while response efforts may help in saving a few whales, it is the information gained from these response efforts that might ultimately reduce or mitigate the threat overall. (Source: E. Lyman, HIHWNMS)
Figure 22. The sanctuary's Animal in Distress Database records reports of humpback whale entanglements and contact with vessels. The database is important in that while response efforts may help in saving a few whales, it is the information gained from these response efforts that might ultimately reduce or mitigate the threat overall. (Source: E. Lyman, HIHWNMS)
In 2003, the sanctuary increased its efforts in marine mammal response and, as a result, started receiving more reports of marine mammals in distress. To better record and analyze these reports, the sanctuary designed and fabricated its own database (Figure 22). The purpose of the database is to record reports of humpback entanglements and contact with vessels; however, other marine mammal species are also covered, as well as other events such as strandings and general harassment activities that might compromise the well-being of the animal or humpback whale population. To date, the sanctuary's Animal in Distress Database contains 224 cases and 326 events. At the end of each humpback whale season, records are sent to the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office. The database is extremely important in that while response efforts may help in saving a few whales, it is the information gained from these response efforts that might ultimately reduce or mitigate the threat overall. The sanctuary's database records and organizes this data to allow for better use. Most of the information within the database is available to the public, and is typically posted on the sanctuary's website, included in reports and provided at presentations and workshops.

In 2010, the sanctuary co-convened with the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service a three-day, International Whaling Commission-sponsored workshop on large whale entanglement. The workshop covered a broad range of topics, including the global scope of the problem, the nature of entangling gear, the impacts on both the individual whale and the population, the efforts to respond, and the difficult decisions involved. The sanctuary hosted the workshop at its Maui site and invited participants from many countries including those that have well-established whale disentanglement programs (e.g., Australia, Canada, South Africa and the U.S.). The workshop highlighted U.S. concern and leadership on this important issue, which is currently the most significant human-generated cause of mortality in many large whale populations.

Noise Pollution

Acoustic impacts are not clearly understood; however, it is thought that human-caused noise could potentially adversely affect humpback whales by disrupting resting, feeding, courtship, calving, nursing, migration or other activities. Researchers suggest that increased background noise and specific sound sources might impact marine animals in several ways. The effects vary depending upon the intensity and frequency of the sound, and other variables. The potential impacts include sounds that: 1) cause marine animals to alter their behavior; 2) prevent marine animals from hearing important sounds (masking); and 3) cause temporary or permanent hearing loss or tissue damage in marine animals. The sanctuary currently plays a supporting role through collaborative research activities, which have measured received levels of sound from coastal construction, demolition and typical vessel noise.

Coastal Pollution and Coastal Development

The condition of the marine and coastal waters of the sanctuary is vulnerable to both land-based and marine sources of pollution. Sources of concern include pollutant runoff from impervious surfaces, farms, feedlots, golf courses and others. Marine sources of pollution result from human activities that discharge water or wastes in the ocean, including shipping, fishing and boating (DLNR-DAR 2005).

When the sanctuary was designated in 1997, NOAA received comments from the public that the sanctuary should, in cooperation with boat operators, promote proper disposal of sewage from vessels, encourage compliance with existing laws and help implement existing regulations and programs to address water quality issues. To this end, the sanctuary supports efforts by the state of Hawai'i to develop more pump-out facilities at major harbors on every island. Currently, boat operators find the process of using existing facilities, or contracting with private companies for pumping at their harbor, both costly and time-consuming. Because of this, many discouraged boat owners dump their waste at sea. The practice of vessels discharging sewage in the ocean outside of the three-mile limit that delineates state waters has been an ongoing concern for a number of ocean enthusiasts, especially off Maui (Kira et al. 2003).

Discharges in the sanctuary are prohibited if they do not comply with an existing federal or state permit, license, lease or other authorization. These regulations prohibit discharging or depositing any material or matter inside or outside the sanctuary if the discharge or deposit subsequently enters the sanctuary and could injure a humpback whale or humpback whale habitat. Any exception to these regulations would require a federal or state permit, license or other authorization. Because there is no existing state or federal rule that prohibits discharges from vessels outside the three-mile limit, the practice is currently legal within the federal waters of the sanctuary.

At this time, NOAA is working with its agency partners - the U.S. Coast Guard,Environmental Protection AgencyHawai'i Department of Health and Maui County - and the community to find workable solutions to ensure better compliance with existing water quality regulations. Up to this point, NOAA has taken the approach that the best workable solution is to support and supplement existing state and federal programs that will provide improvements to harbor facilities and the installation of pump-out facilities at all harbors - a solution that will encourage boaters to adopt practices that are friendlier to the marine environment of Hawai'i. The sanctuary has also provided funding to the Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources to support the county of Maui's interim efforts to subsidize costs for pump-out trucks for commercial vessels at Mā'alaea Harbor on Maui. The effort is intended to accommodate vessels until the state of Hawai'i is able to complete harbor improvements, which will include a pump-out facility at Mā'alaea Harbor. The project is several years from completion. Finally, the sanctuary works closely with the NOAA Fisheries National Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program to monitor the health of humpbacks in state waters and there is currently no evidence of significant pollutant transfer to humpbacks in the sanctuary.

Climate Change

Changes in climate could potentially affect aspects of humpback whale migration, such as distance and timing. Exposure to new diseases is also a possibility, although these would be most likely to manifest in the feeding grounds. Currently, most of the concern about emerging or resurging cetacean diseases associated with climate change has focused on their feeding grounds, as some scientists around the world have noticed increases in diseases that may be associated with climate change in those habitats (IWC 2007). While humpback whales fast during their season in Hawaiian waters, as a breeding ground, this is the time and place where any increase in sexually transmitted diseases would show up. Sanctuary scientists have documented the apparent emergence of skin lesions on humpback whales in Hawai'i not documented in past decades (Mattila and Robbins 2008). However, it is not yet known if these lesions are reactions to parasites or potentially sexually transmitted, as the lesions are most numerous around the genitals. However, these lesions are found in greater percentages of South Pacific humpbacks and do not seem to be impairing population growth.

Maritime Archaeological Resources

In recognition of the variety of maritime archaeological resources in Hawai'i, as well as the current threats and acknowledged lack of resource management in this area, the chair of the Hawai'i Department of Land and Natural Resources addressed a letter to the sanctuary co-managers (Doc No 0606AJ14) in 2006, recommending that the program consider adding maritime archaeological resources to the sanctuary's management plan through the management plan review process. The state's letter noted that these kinds of resources are of national significance and can provide valuable information about various facets of maritime heritage in Hawai'i. Letters of support have also been received from theMarine Option Program at the University of Hawai'i, the Naval Historical Center, the National Park Service Submerged Resources Center, and sport diving organizations. A brief maritime archaeological assessment document was subsequently developed by the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries Pacific Islands Region for the sanctuary, addressing the existing inventory, current threats and resource management efforts, and the potential for joint management and future collaboration in this preservation field (HIHWNMS and SOH 2007b).