Reading the March 20 Maui News made Irene Bowie uneasy. Bowie, the Pacific Whale Foundation’s managing director from 2002 to 2005, was shocked to learn that Terry O’Halloran, the chairman of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council (SAC) had just been hired to be Hawaii Superferry’s new public affairs director.
“This just sounds like a conflict of interest,” Bowie said.
The SAC is an advisory body to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS) Managers. They provide advice and recommendations on managing and protecting the humpback whales that visit Hawaiian waters.
Bowie wondered why the Sanctuary, the entity entrusted with protecting humpback whales, would put two Hawaii Superferry officials on their Advisory Council. Terry White, the Superferry’s Vice President of Operations, is also on the SAC.
O’Halloran, who is entering into the second year of a two-year term as SAC chairman, doesn’t believe his new job will be a conflict of interest.
“I will not chair any issues regarding the Superferry as SAC Chairman,” he said. “I will ask Vice Chair James Coon to chair any Superferry discussions.”
O’Halloran added that he will be recuse himself from voting on Superferry issues. Hawaii Superferry plans to start inter-island cargo and passenger ferry service in 2007.
Sanctuary manager Naomi McIntosh sees no problem with O’Halloran’s double duty. “All council members must follow strict guidelines outlined both in the National Sanctuary Advisory handbook and the HIHWNMSAdvisory Council Charter to avoid any conflict of interest issues,”she said in an Apr. 3 email.“In addition, if the Council believes there to be a conflict of interest they may choose to vote on whether or not, or to what degree a member should be allowed to participate in the matter.”
But Bowie isn’t the only one who was taken back by the announcement. When the SAC learned during their Mar. 16 meeting that O’Halloran will assume his new post with Superferry, Inc. on April 1, alternate council member Duane Erway asked, “Is this an April Fool’s joke?”
In his new role, O’Halloran will be responsible for community outreach, public and government relations and communications activities for the company. In other words, he’s Superferry’s lobbyist. He will meet with the newly formed advisory boards on Maui, Kauai and Hawai’i.
“My top priority will be to see what the needs of various community groups are and address those needs,” O’Halloran said.
One of the community groups Erway wants the Superferry to address is the one that includes humpback whales. Erway is concerned that the Superferry’s Whale Avoidance Policy (WAP)—approved by the SAC at its May 12, 2005 meeting—will not protect any endangered humpbacks, to say nothing of seals, turtles or dolphins.
At that meeting, O’Halloran—who also co-chaired the SAC’s whale-vessel interaction group—didn’t exactly reassure anyone. “The council members recognize that no policy will guarantee that a vessel will not interact directly with a whale, however we felt that these measures represent the best that can be done to avoid whales with the current available technology,” he said. Sanctuary managers also accepted the policy but believe it will not eliminate the risk of whale collisions.
The policy includes posting dedicated shipboard lookouts, avoiding areas of high whale density during whale season, using radar and reducing vessel speed when in Sanctuary waters. But Erway doesn’t believe this represents the best that can be done. “Even at the reduced speed of 25 knots in shallow water, the 14-foot bows of the Ferry will kill, injure and harass whale calves and moms,” he said.
Erway wants the Superferries equipped with forward-looking sonar. “Last year at this time HSF planned sonar and promised that they would avoid whales by 500 meters, but this is impossible for the 400-plus whale calves and moms who hang just below the surface and can’t be seen by radar or through fancy binoculars,” he said. He also wonders how accurate whale detection will be during rough weather or winter storms.
Dr. Joe Mobley a professor of Comparative Psychology at the University Of Hawai’i, West Oahu, has studied humback whale populations in Hawaiian waters since 1980. He’s been studying the feasibility of avoiding whale collisions through the use of radar for the past four years. He says whale detection radar is still in the experimental stages—with documented successes—but believes incorporating high frequency sonar would help with detecting the presence of whales.
Yet at the January 12, 2006 SAC meeting, Superferry employee and SAC member Terry White announced that his company’s first ferry wasn’t equipped with the special sonar, saying that technology wasn’t sufficiently mature.
Mobley says the Humpback population, which he says is increasing seven percent a year, has grown accustomed to the sound of propellers. He says they even ignore the noise.
“With 75 percent of the humpback whale population located inside the Sanctuary’s 100-fathom line, there will certainly be fatal collisions with the whales with the ferry traveling at a ‘reduced’ speed of 25 knots,” he said. Mobley recommends that when the ferry is traveling through the Sanctuary, it should slow to less than 20 knots. He believes that public pressure is needed to get the Superferry executives to use more accurate technologies. MTW