Friday, May 10, 2002

Maui whale counts
comparable to levels
observed last year

A later peak this year compensates
for a lagging early count

By Gary T. Kubota

LAHAINA >> Sightings of endangered humpback whales in Maui County waters got off to a slow start but eventually rose this year, coming close to last year's numbers, observers say.

"It did seem slower, then they were all over the place," said Claire Cappelle, Maui liaison for the Hawaii Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

Whale season officially extends from Dec. 15 through May 15 in Maui County waters -- a period in which the state has banned thrill crafts from operating in South and West Maui coastal waters.

Acting sanctuary manager Naomi McIntosh said people on the Big Island began seeing humpback whales in late January, with whale sightings later increasing in Maui County, then off Oahu and Kauai.

Researcher Dan Salden, president of the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation, said that in his trips from West Maui toward Lanai from Jan. 21 through April 29, he counted 1,445 whales compared with 1,460 for about the same period last year.

Salden said the counts should not be regarded as a census of the whale population, since there could have been multiple sightings of the same whale, but the numbers do give some indication about the presence of the humpbacks off Maui.

The numbers had appeared lower earlier this year when, on Feb. 23, volunteers working with the educational group Pacific Whale Foundation counted 673 humpbacks, or 23 percent fewer whales off South and West Maui than last year.

Whale researchers said the peak of the whale season occurred later than usual, with the most whales sighted in March.

Researchers said they also noticed more dead whales and whales in distress this year off Maui but do not know what the causes might be. They also do not know if the numbers indicate an increase in problems related to whales or people noticing more problems.

Salden said a greater need seems to be emerging for developing procedures and a network of people able to respond quickly to reports of dead whales and whales in distress, such as four calves abandoned by their mothers this season.

"I don't think there was really a sense of what to do with them," Salden said.

Salden said if the sanctuary is going to have value, it is going to have to assess what is happening in whale migration areas in Hawaii, including the use of the habitat, the impact of runoff contaminants from land, and water quality.

Some native Hawaiians have criticized federal officials for failing to establish a culturally sensitive policy in the treatment of dead whales.

Hawaiian kahu Charles Maxwell said according to native culture, dead whales should be returned to the sea instead of buried on land, as in the case of a pygmy sperm whale last month.

Researchers said while the National Marine Fisheries Service is the lead agency responding to whale strandings on beaches on Maui, its main office is in Honolulu, and federal officials will have to determine if the sanctuary should play a larger role.

McIntosh said this whale season was the first year the sanctuary had a specialist assigned to respond to whales in distress, and the sanctuary is developing a system.

She said sanctuary officials obtained some valuable information, taking photographs of whales entangled in lines and doing necropsies of dead whales.

McIntosh said sanctuary officials were able to determine that the lines were from old fishing nets, and are awaiting the results of the necropsies.

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