The feds have apparently closed their investigation into a passenger report that Hawaii Superferry hit a whale Wednesday morning. As the Star-Bulletin reported:
Wendy Goo, spokeswoman for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said a federal marine law enforcement officer happened to be shipping his car on the Superferry and was on the vessel.
She said the officer conducted an investigation and interviewed passengers and the captain.
"He concluded that there wasn't enough evidence to conclusively say there was a ship strike," Goo said. "We're not pursuing it further at this time."
This conclusion doesn’t sit well with everyone. A friend, who is also a marine scientist, sent me this email:
What bothers me most about the news reporting concerning the whale miss is that HSF really has no idea how many they have hit or "glanced off of" without knowing it. They have not put cameras on the bow and stern looking at water level or under water, they have not done inspections after every cruise to check for body parts (whale, monk seal, turtle), they have not put a meter on board that would record any de-acceleration caused by hitting something. If they don't see it with those eyes looking out forward, especially at night, then it didn't happen. They really cannot say, ethically, that they did not hit a whale, seal, turtle; just that they have no evidence of hitting one. And if you don't look closely and check for collisions you will never have any evidence. But you can't tell me they didn't hit anything. I don't believe that.
The Save Kahului Harbor blog, in a post yesterday, also expressed reservations:
The person who was onboard HSF and reported the whale strike to NMFS yesterday has lived his whole life on Maui, knows the ocean and feels that his observation of a whale strike is being dismissed and covered up.
He reportedly said:
“I know a collision. That was a strike. That was no wave. The entire boat shook underneath where I was sitting. They hit a whale. This was no calm maneuver. The boat slammed into a whale and came to stop. This is a cover up. They are covering this up. Other passengers around me felt the same impact. Other people in other parts of the boat did not."
Apparently divers were ready to survey the hull yesterday but were told to stand down due to lack of ‘credible evidence’.
Why not send divers on a hull survey, just to be sure and lay the matter fully to rest? If you look at the coverage carefully, the feds never do say conclusively that there was no strike. It also appears that the investigation was limited to interviews conducted by an agent who was himself patronizing HSF during the voyage in question. There’s no indication the boat was inspected.
As The Garden Island, which had the most thorough coverage of the incident, reported:
Goo said in a phone interview NOAA was initially “scrambling” to find an enforcement officer to meet the ship and conduct interviews when it arrived in Maui, but an O‘ahu-based officer was coincidentally on board the ship, not serving in any official capacity but taking a vehicle to Maui.
The officer was able to conduct an investigation, talking to the ship’s captain, crew and passengers and eventually determining that there was “no compelling evidence that there was a strike,” Goo said, adding NOAA was “standing down on it because we don’t have any conclusive evidence.”
Bill Robinson, regional administrator for the Pacific Islands regional office of NOAA Fisheries said yesterday in a phone interview that there was no confirmation of a whale strike.
“That doesn’t close the issue entirely. If new information comes to light, then we would continue to look at it. At this point, there just isn’t any real evidence that there was an actual strike,” he said.
When I first got word of the strike report and contacted the NOAA enforcement guys, I was surprised that their plan was to wait until the ferry docked at Kahului to check out the report. If the boat usually arrives about 10 a.m., and the report was made about 7:30 a.m., that means 2.5 hours elapsed — ample time for an injured or dead whale to leave the area or go out to sea.
Surely, if they can mobilize the entire state’s Coast Guard contingent to prevent people from protesting HSF, they could send one CG boat or plane out to take a look. It seems it would be pretty easy to spot blood in the water.
“But that’s assuming they really want to know if a whale was hit,” said an Oahu friend who is also involved in marine conservation issues.
What possible reason could there be for not exploring the matter further, aside from adverse publicity? Well, as the Garden Island also reports:
He [Robinson] said Hawai‘i Superferry has asked for an incidental take statement, a permit that allows holders to “take, harass and harm a marine mammal and be protected under the Endangered Species Act from prosecution.”
NOAA is currently in consultation with Hawai‘i Superferry, so any incidental take — whale strike — to occur before the permit is issued could result in substantial penalties.
A strike could also indicate that the avoidance measures recommended by NOAA in the interim are inadequate, or not being fully followed by HSF. As KGMB TV reported (and the emphasis is mine):
"The Superferry is making a very conscious effort to implement many of the measures we recommended, and they're aware of the public controversy that would be caused if they did hit a whale," said Bill Robinson, NOAA regional administrator.
Why isn't it implementing all of them, especially if it's trying to get an incidental take permit?
Unless a whale washes ashore, we’ll likely never know if HSF did actually hit a humpback. And as my friend’s email noted, that’s precisely the point. We’ll never have a true picture of the marine carnage that the speeding HSF inflicts because no mechanisms are in place to find out.