Week of April 28: Maui Passes Tobacco-Free Beaches/Parks Bill, Japan’s coastal whaling season commences and Canadian government makes controversial move to downgrade humpback whale protections

Cigarette butts are the single most common type of litter found in the environment.  From beaches to roadways, bus stops to streams, an estimated 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are littered in each year.  Not only are discarded cigarette butts unsightly, they are also highly toxic and pose major public health and environmental hazards. 

Concerned with the impacts of cigarette butt litter, an increasing number of municipalities are adopting smoke-free or tobacco-free policies in public, outdoor spaces.  Recently, New York City passed a smoke-free beaches and parks bill, as did the island of O’ahu.  Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara and Seattle have also all adopted smoke-free beaches.  Thus far, a total of 185 municipalities have adopted some form of the smoke-free beaches/parks policy, and many are already seeing a decrease in cigarette butt litter in areas covered by the policies.

On Tuesday, April 22, 2014 (Earth Day!), the Maui County Council voted unanimously to adopt the Tobacco-Free County Beaches and Parks bill (Bill 24).  The Council received over one thousand individual testimonies supporting the bill, compared with nine testimonies submitted in opposition. 

Mayor Alan Arakawa is scheduled to sign the bill into law on Friday, May 2 during a special ceremony at the County building.  Once signed, the bill will take immediate effect, although education will take a few months, and public behavior should not be expected to change overnight.  Furthermore, while there will be fines for violators, enforcement will be mainly community-based.  For more information about the bill, as well as information about cigarette butt litter, visit Pacific Whale Foundation’s Butts Off Our Beaches page.

Despite the recent International Court of Justice ruling that outlawed Japanese whaling in the Antarctic Ocean, the Japanese whaling fleet set off this past Saturday (April 26th) for the Northwest Pacific Ocean hunt. While the Court ruling is specific to the Antarctic hunt, and thus does not pertain to Japan’s North Pacific hunts, many were hopeful that the ruling would help Japan cease whaling operations altogether. 

The fleet consisted of four vessels that departed from the northeast fishing town of Ayukawa in the Miyagi Prefecture, and plans to kill up to 50 minke whales between April and early June.  The fleet will target Japan’s coastal area, but will depart on a second, open-ocean hunt in the fall.  In all, Japan’s Northwest Pacific hunt has a catch quota of 210 whales, down from 380 in 2013.  The quota is broken up into 100 Minke, 20 Bryde’s and 90 Sei whales.

With regards to the Antarctic hunt, Japan has announced that while it will not hunt whales during the upcoming 2014/2015 season, vessels will still travel to the Southern Ocean to carry out “non-lethal research”.  It has been strongly suggested that Japanese whaling will commence in the Antarctic for the 2015/2016.

Canadian environmentalists also raised concerns last week when the government quietly downgraded the humpback whale population off British Columbia from “threatened” to

“species of least concern”.  The whales were listed as “threatened” in 2005, but Canadian officials maintain that the population has rebounded to a point where that classification no longer applies.

While some biologists are defending the science behind the decision, environmental groups are concerned that the downgrading will making it easier for two controversial oil pipeline projects to gain approval.  Biologists supporting the decision maintain that the government and general public have no influence on the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada’s (COSEWIC) reports.  Both the Kinder Morgan Pipeline and the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline will increase ship traffic in humpback whale habitat, as well as the potential for oil spills, noise and tanker collisions.  Opponents furthermore point out that the current humpback population is estimated at only half the size of the population just a century ago.