Week of April 7th: The war on whaling continues, NOAA responders free Hawai’i’s 15th confirmed entangled humpback whale of the season, and Maui County is one step closer towards tobacco-free beaches

By Lauren Campbell, Conservation Manager

Last week, ocean advocates rejoiced when the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan’s “scientific whaling” program violated the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling.  Yet while the ruling places Japan’s Antarctic whaling operations in serious jeopardy, the war between whaling and non-whaling nations continues.

Coming on the heels of the ICJ’s ruling, President Barack Obama turned international attention towards Icelandic whaling when he directed U.S. officials to continue to pressure Iceland to conform to the international ban on whaling.  Obama instructed U.S. agencies to raise official objections and to encourage Iceland to place more emphasis on non-lethal whale activities such as whale-watching.

Under Section 8 of the Fishermen’s Protective Act, also known as the Pelly Amendment, the U.S. Cabinet is required to report to the President when it determines that nationals of a foreign country are “diminishing the effectiveness of an international fishery conservation program.  The President is then given 60 days to determine whether or not to impose economic measures, which may include trade sanctions.

To the frustration of conservation groups, however, Obama’s recent directive did not impose economic trade sanctions.  Activists pointed out that the Obama Administration has previously called on Iceland to halt its whaling activities to no avail, with similar statements being issued in 2004, 2006 and 2011.  Last year, Iceland hunted 134 fin whales.

In a further reminder to whale activists that the war against whaling is far from over, Norway also announced last week that it would keep its quota of 1,286 minke whales for the 2014 season.   Norway maintains that the minke whale population in the Northeast Atlantic is in no danger of extinction and that the ban on commercial whaling is not based on science.  In 2013, Norwegian whalers killed a total of 594 minke whales.  The annual summer hunt is scheduled to commence in the coming weeks.

Yet while commercial whaling remains a serious and highly publicized threat to whale populations, the unusually high incidence of entangled whales in Hawaiian waters this winter reminds us that harpoons are not the only things responsible for killing whales.    

On Sunday, April 6th, the crew of Pacific Whale Foundation’s Ocean Discovery first reported a subadult humpback whale entangled in braided fishing line a few miles off the Maui’s west side.  The line ran through the animal’s mouth and trailed approximately 120 feet behind the animal where it was attached to two buoys.  Due to the nature of the entanglement, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) responders reported that the entanglement was life threatening.  Ocean Discovery worked with other whale watching vessels to monitor the whale while awaiting the authorized response team.  The response team was able to entirely free the animal.

This most recent entanglement comes less than a week after another adult humpback whale was reported entangled off Mana Point, Kauai.  A fishing boat also reported an entanglement on March 28th off of Olowalu, although NOAA officials have not confirmed the incident. 

Sunday’s incident marks the fifteenth confirmed humpback whale entanglement in the Hawaiian Islands for the 2013/2014 winter season, which surpasses the previous record of 11 confirmed entanglements during the 2009/2010 season.  Since 2003, the NOAA response network has removed gear from 16 whales (15 humpbacks and 1 sei whale).  Fishing gear from Alaska feeding grounds has been implicated in the highest number of entanglements to date. 

Maui County is one step closer to supporting cleaner beaches and waterways on Maui, Lana’i and Moloka’i.  As of Friday, April 2, 2014, the Maui County Council voted 8-0 in favor of a countywide tobacco free beaches and parks bill.  The Bill would prohibit the use of tobacco products on Maui County beaches and in Maui County Parks.  Proposed by Councilmember Don Guzman, the policy has been championed by numerous environmental non-profits, including Pacific Whale Foundation. 

Ocean advocacy groups cite numerous studies describing how cigarette butts are the most commonly littered item in the environment.  Cigarette butts are composed of 165 toxic chemicals that can begin leaching into oceans and streams within one hour of contact with water.  Recognizing the environmental threat posed by cigarette butt litter, nearly 200 municipalities across the U.S. have already passed some form of smoke-free beaches and parks policy, including New York City, Los Angeles County and both O’ahu and Hawai’i islands. 

The bill will face its final vote on Tuesday, April 22, 2014.  Show your support for clean oceans and beaches by visiting Pacific Whale Foundation’s Butt-Free Beaches webpage and submitting testimony to the Maui County Council!