Why did feds scale back the whale sanctuary in Hawaii?

The Hawaiian government stopped the proposed expansion of a marine sanctuary, claiming that increased federal oversight would diminish the influence of local stakeholders.

NOAA Fisheries/AP
The tail of a humpback whale flips out of the water off the coast of Hawaii in this photo date unknown.

A federal agency is scaling back its whale-sized ambitions in Hawaii as the state government and conservationists alike said the current marine sanctuary is large enough.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) sought to enlarge the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary by 235 square miles to include the water surrounding the islands of Oahu, Kauai and Niihau, Wendy Osher reported for Maui Now.

The NOAA announced it would halt these plans on Wednesday. The state of Hawaii had opposed the increased federal oversight, achieving a victory for local land management the very same week a standoff over federal land management ended in Oregon. Hawaii, however, had made its case in a series of public meetings, peaceful protests, and diplomatically worded letters.

"The State of Hawaii supports an ecosystem-based management approach, but cannot endorse federal jurisdiction or enforcement of Hawaiian waters at this scale," wrote Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the Board of Land and Natural Resources in an open letter.

Ocean sport enthusiasts and beach-related business owners demonstrated last summer with signs that read "No fishing?" and "Say No to NOAA," Michael Tsai reported for the Hololulu Star Advertiser.

Several Hawaiian conservation groups had opposed the federal expansion and said the state had made the correct recommendation. The letter means the state of Hawaii intends to manage its own marine resources, Carl Berg, a marine biologist and chairman of Surfrider Foundation Kauai told Jessica Else for The Garden Island.

"It’s a shock that the state came down the way they did and I’m really surprised, but I’m also pleased," Gordon LaBedz, a member of the whale conservation group Kohola Leo, told The Garden Island at a meeting to discuss the plan. “Her letter said, ‘We’re not really comfortable with you guys taking the whole ocean on.'"

The proposed expansion was unusual in that it was not based on an urgent conservation need; rather, the NOAA acknowledged the success of the marine sanctuary, which Congress established in 1992 to protect the near-extinct humpback whale. Humpback whales now number approximately 21,000, and thousands migrate to Hawaiian shores to breed each winter,  The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month.

The NOAA suggested that with that immediate threat's resolution, the sanctuary could protect the larger ecosystem more holistically.

"Managing a single species is not the way management is done, either on land or in the water," Allen Tom, NOAA regional director of the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, told The Huffington Post. "We were trying to evolve to a much broader approach of managing some of these endangered animals as well as the resources in the ocean."

The agency started work on the expansion plan in 2010, then opened for public comment in March 2015, saying the expansion would enable the  to protect multiple species in addition to the humpback whale.

Government officials from Hawaii, however, said the federal government already regulates its waters and land heavily and expressed concerns that the NOAA plan would take local agencies and partnerships out of the equation.

Hawaii state agencies "feel that what is most needed from the federal government at this time is more management capacity . . . and not more regulation," and worry the NOAA plan would harm access for fishers, boats, and cultural heritage sites, Ms. Case wrote in the open letter.

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