Written by 14th Coast Guard District public affairs.
The Coast Guard is a key protector of our nation’s critical marine habitats and the endangered species dependent on them. These ocean resources are particularly important to those in the 14th Coast Guard District. The district is home to four marine national monuments and two national marine sanctuaries, more than any other region in the United States.
The service’s stewardship role cannot be performed alone however and partnerships are important in protecting vulnerable marine species. Recently, crews from the Coast Guard, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the State of Hawaii’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement, from the Department of Land and Natural Resources, partnered together to protect humpback whales as they make their annual migration to Hawaiian waters.
“It is certainly beneficial to have the Coast Guard, NOAA and DOCARE working together with the same goal of protecting these marine mammals,” said Eric Roberts, the 14th District’s marine mammal response manager. “By combining our resources, we are better prepared to protect this endangered species in a way that helps keep both the animals and Hawaii’s mariners safe.”
Humpback whale season is generally from November to May with the peak season occurring during the months of January and March. Whales come to the Hawaiian Islands to mate, calve and nurse their young and return to Alaska in the summer months because Hawaii’s waters are relatively nutrient-free and too warm to support enough of the humpback’s food to sustain them year-round. The whales must migrate back to colder water to feed and rebuild their blubber supply.
Since the 2009 to 2010 humpback whale season, the Coast Guard has conducted Operation Kohola Guardian. The operation involves coordinated joint patrols of the sanctuary during the peak months. Through Operation Kohola Guardian, the Coast Guard aims to protect both the safety of mariners as well as the endangered humpback whales.
“We are so fortunate to have the humpbacks visit Hawaii each year,” said Elia Herman, sanctuary co-manager with the Department of Land and Natural Resources. “But with that comes added responsibility – and we all need to continue to work together to ensure the laws are followed and both whales and people are protected.”
There are several whale collisions near the Hawaiian Islands every year. Boaters can take proactive measures to ensure their safety as well as the safety of the whales. Keeping a boat’s speed down when whales are known to be in the area is one step mariners can take. Mariners should also maintain a sharp lookout at all times.
Weighing an average of 45 tons, a collision with a humpback whale can be catastrophic. While on patrol, Coast Guard boats and air crews scan the area for signs of whales. If whales are sighted, crews alert nearby mariners to ensure they remain away. It is also illegal to approach within 100 yards of a whale and aircraft are prohibited from flying within 1,000 feet of a whale.
“Protecting humpback whales in Hawaii requires the work of multiple agencies. The Coast Guard, NOAA and the state of Hawaii’s DOCARE all play important roles, that when combined, result in better protection for whales in the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary,” said Sanctuary Superintendent Malia Chow, from NOAA. “It is truly a multi-agency effort.”
The Coast Guard’s efforts to protect humpback whales are not limited to surface patrols. Coast Guardsmen act as first responders to entanglements and other marine mammal distress calls.
“Coast Guardsmen attend regular training focusing on large whale entanglement response and we are permitted to act on behalf of NOAA in certain circumstances,” Roberts said. “This provides our members with the technical knowledge to assess the extent of the entanglements and attached satellite tracking gear as needed. Additionally, our boat operators receive extensive training on safe approach techniques to limit the risks to both the animals and our response personnel.”
Citizens are asked to report injured or entangled marine mammals to the Coast Guard on VHF channel 16. Reporting can also be done by calling 808-842-2600 or by contacting the NOAA fisheries hotline at 800-853-1964.