POSTED: 15 OCTOBER 2007 - 7:00pm HST

The Dirty Little Secret of the Superferry

image above: Painting "Blue Moby Dick" by Jackson Pollock in 1943 Ohara Museum of Art, Kurashiki. Click to enlarge

Secret of the Superferry and Six dead whales
by Lee Tepley on 15 October 2007

A recent e-mail states that Governor Lingle’s Attorney General is proposing that the Superferry be permitted to operate without restriction regardless of any existing or future laws or court decisions.

In the hope that this attempt to legalize Executive Branch tyranny will not prevail, I will continue my modest effort to clarify the threats to marine life - and especially to Humpback whales - that will be caused by the Superferry.

This letter will be concerned only with vessel-whale collisions. The term “Dirty Little Secret” used below refers to the fact that the Superferry will be far more dangerous to Humpbacks and other marine mammals than any other vessel in Hawaiian waters and there is no practical way to eliminate this danger.

When any large vessel strikes a whale, the whale is likely to be seriously injured or killed unless the vessel is moving at a very low speed (on the order of 10 knots). As the vessel speed increases, the risk of death by collision increases rapidly. This has been demonstrated in many scientific papers - the most recent of which is called “Vessel Collisions with whales: The Probability of Lethal injury based on Vessel speed” by Vanderlaan and Taggart. A PDF copy of this paper is attached.

Also, at very low vessel speeds - like 10 knots - a whale will have more time to react and get out of the vessel’s way. Sometimes the whale will react and avoid collision and sometimes it will not. Baby Humpbacks are less likely to react than adults who may have had more experience in avoiding ships. Furthermore, at very low speeds, the vessel will have more time to slow down or turn to avoid a collision; that is, if anyone on board should see the whale. Then, it will take at least 5 seconds (probably a lot more) before the Pilot can react and start to slow down or turn the ship.

If the ship is traveling slowly, this might be enough time to avoid a collision. But if the ship is traveling at high speed – say 37 knots – it would have moved at least100 yards before the pilot even reacts. And then how long would it take to slow down or turn the ship?? So a vessel moving at high speed will probably hit a whale unless it surfaces many hundreds of yards away.

To summarize, low vessel speeds are obviously safer for whales than high speeds in terms of collision avoidance but when a ship-strike does occur, it is likely to be deadly at any speed above 10 knots –and will even be more deadly at higher speeds.

So how does the above apply to the Superferry?
If the Superferry is to travel at a low enough speed to minimize the risk of a fatal whale-strike, it would take all day to travel between islands. HSF could not possibly operate under this condition and stay in business. Therefore, it must travel fast and is inherently a serious threat to marine life. This is the “Dirty Little Secret” of the Superferry. In contrast, inter-island cruise ships can run at relatively low speeds because they have all night to travel between the islands.

But the above is only part of the Superferry’s “Dirty Little Secret”. In fact, the Superferry is far more dangerous than a conventional large vessel (like a cruise ship) even when it is running at the same speed as the conventional vessel because:

(1) The Superferry has two bows - as opposed to one bow for a conventional vessel. This doubles the probability of a collision with a whale.

(2) The Superferry will push less water out the way than a conventional vessel and is therefore much less likely to push a whale out of the way. Instead, it will slice into the whale.

So how does HSF try to cover up the Superferry’s “Dirty Little Secret”. Here are three ways:

HSF claims that it has exotic detection methods to permit the Superferry to avoid colliding with whales. It does not!! It has no way of detecting whales that suddenly surface in front of the Superferry - or maybe don’t surface at all. It’s pontoons extend down to 14 ft. Also, in rough water, observers are not likely to detect the whale’s dorsal fin which may break the surface for only a few seconds as the Superferry approaches. The likelihood of spotting a baby whale in even moderately rough seas is extremely small.

HSF has argued that there is no evidence that cruise ships traveling at 25 knots kill whales – so why worry about the Superferry. However, I demonstrated some time ago that inter-island cruise ships mostly travel at speeds much less than 25 knots – so they are much less likely to kill whales than the Superferry which will travel at 37 knots in open water. Still, large vessels do not always travel slowly and the fact that 6 dead whales (5 Humpbacks and 1 Sperm whale) have been found in Hawaiian waters in the last 3 years suggests that large vessels have been killing whales – maybe lots of whales. See my Superferry web site for details.

Go to

Then go to the page on Vessel/Whale collisions. If fast moving conventional vessels have indeed been killing whales, it follows that the Superferry will kill a lot more – partly because of it’s two bows and partly because it will travel much faster than even the largest fastest conventional vessels in Hawaiian waters.

HSF has also argued that small boats hit 6 Humpbacks last year - so, again, why worry about the Superferry. This is another way of trying to cover up the “Dirty Little Secret”. But the fact is that the 6 Humpbacks struck by small boats last year suffered only propeller cuts. They bled but, apparently, all survived. They will rarely survive when hit by a large fast vessel like the Superferry.

So – in what appears to have been incredible favoritism - and which may now be turning into Executive Branch tyranny - the legislature may be pressured into permitting the Superferry to operate without restriction during the environmental assessment process and beyond. But no environmental studies can cover up the “Dirty Little Secret” of the Superferry – which is that it is inherently far more dangerous to whales and other marine mammals than any other vessel in Hawaiian waters.



POSTED: 4 OCTOBER 2007 - 10:00am HST

Hawaii Superferry risk to whales raised in 2005
image above: overall organizational view of the National Maritime Fishereies Service

by Christie Wilson on 4 October 2007 in The Honolulu Advertiser

Two federal agencies raised concerns in 2005 about the Hawaii Superferry's potential impact on humpback whales and other marine mammals and
recommended a "consultation" to examine the interisland service.

The National Marine Fisheries Service and the Marine Mammal Commission were especially worried about the likelihood of collisions between the high-speed ferry and humpback whales, according to officials from both agencies who said they had hoped the U.S. Maritime Administration and Superferry executives would work with federal marine biologists to develop measures to reduce the threat.

The Maritime Administration, known as MARAD, approved a $140 million loan guarantee to Hawaii Superferry on Jan. 21, 2005, for construction of two 350-foot catamarans, later determining that no environmental review of the action was

The Marine Mammal Commission had sent a Jan. 25, 2005, letter to the Pacific Islands Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service expressing surprise that a "Section 7 consultation" under the Endangered Species Act had not been conducted on the potential effects of the ferry service on humpback qhales and monk seals.

The letter from commission Executive Director David Cottingham said the high-speed vessel's "potential for injury of and disturbance to humpback whales and other species is clear," and that any federal agency taking action on behalf of the Superferry "has an obligation to conduct appropriate environmental analyses under federal laws) ... because a 'may affect' situation is obvious."

Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies to consult with the National Marine Fisheries Service if they are proposing an "action" that may affect listed marine species, which include humpback whales. "Action" is defined broadly to include funding, permitting and other regulatory actions.

The National Marine Fisheries Service sent a letter to MARAD in October 2005 asking whether the maritime agency would be conducting a Section 7 consultation "since we believed there was a threat of ship strikes to protected species," said Chris Yates, head of the service's Office of Protected Resources for the Pacific Islands Region.

According to Yates, MARAD responded in February 2006 that a consultation was not required since the loan guarantee "did not fund, authorize or carry out an action" that would have triggered an environmental review.

Copies of both letters were not immediately available but have been requested by The Advertiser under the Freedom of Information Act.

Yates said in an e-mail to The Advertiser that even if the loan guarantee was a done deal, "had (MARAD) decided to consult, there would have been ample time to analyze the potential effects" of Hawaii Superferry operations on whales and other endangered marine mammals before the start of service.

The company launched service between Honolulu, Maui and Kaua'i on Aug. 26, but suspended voyages the following day due to a Maui court order and anti-ferry protests on Kaua'i.

Tim Ragen, who succeeded Cottingham as head of the Marine Mammal Commission in Bethesda, Md., told The Advertiser last week the agency remains
deeply concerned about "the apparent lack of environmental analysis" of the Hawaii Superferry.

He disagrees with MARAD's decision to exclude the loan guarantee from the review under the National Environmental Protection Act.

The Marine Mammal Commission is an independent government agency created to provide oversight of the marine mammal conservation policies and programs being carried out by ederal regulatory agencies.

"(MARAD) took an action in order to make the loan guarantee. If Hawaii Superferry was able to operate based on that action, then the act itself had consequences that would have been sufficient to initiate a Section 7 consultation," said
Ragen, a marine mammal biologist who studied monk seals in Hawai'i during the 1990s.

"That was how we interpreted it and we were surprised there was no consultation."
MARAD officials in Washington, D.C., have not responded to an Advertiser request for comment.

But MARAD official Jean McKeever testified Sept. 14 in an ongoing Maui Circuit Court hearing that an environmental review of the loan guarantee was not required because her agency was not providing a direct loan or funding to Hawaii Superferry.

The Hawaii Superferry's potential for whale strikes has been a main topic of testimony in the court hearing, now in its fourth week, to determine whether the company should resume service while the state Department of Transportation conducts an environmental assessment of $40 million in ferry-related projects at Kahului, Nawiliwili, Kawaihae and Honolulu harbors.

Hawaii Superferry officials say they consulted with experts to devise an unprecedented whale-avoidance policy that goes well beyond anything in practice by other interisland cargo or passenger carriers. The policy includes avoiding waters of 100 fathoms (600 feet) or shallower where humpback whales are known to congregate during the winter. When that is not possible due to poor sea conditions, the vessel will slow to 25 knots or less while traversing shallower waters.

The normal ferry cruising speed is 37 knots, or about 43 mph, making it the fastest commercial vessel in Hawaiian waters.

The policy provides an alternate winter route from Honolulu to Kahului that travels north of Moloka'i, instead of the usual route between Moloka'i and Maui within the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The company also will post two dedicated lookouts on board to assist the bridge crew in spotting whales.

Jeffrey Walters, the state's co-manager of the whale sanctuary, has said staying out of waters of less than 100 fathoms when possible during whale season is the most important element of the company's whale-avoidance policy. He said that if
the company adheres to its policy, the ferry presents no greater risk to humpbacks than other vessels operating in whale waters during whale season.

Terry O'Halloran, Hawaii Superferry director of business development, said the company has a "great" whale-avoidance policy that goes as far as it can to reduce the collision risk, pending availability of technology such as forward-looking sonar.

O'Halloran was chairman of the advisory council to the national marine sanctuary, but not yet a Hawaii Superferry employee, when the panel voted to support its whale-avoidance policy in May 2005. The council comprises volunteers representing business, tourism, ocean recreation, Native Hawaiian, government, conservation and community interests.

Sanctuary Manager Naomi McIntosh of the National Marine Fisheries Service said that at the time the advisory council voted to support the policy, the panel recognized the need to publicize the company's plans and considered it "a working document to be revised if safer measures were identified." And since it appeared that no environmental review would be legally required, the policy "represented the best that can currently be done to avoid such collisions," she
said in an e-mail to The Advertiser.

"While Hawaii Superferry's whale-avoidance policy is a good starting point, the sanctuary believes that it does not go far enough to protect endangered humpback whales in Hawai'i's waters and needs to be strengthened," McIntosh said.

While praising the company's efforts to address concerns about whale strikes, McIntosh, Yates, Ragen and others remain concerned the big ship will be traveling too fast for its crew to spot whales and avoid collisions, and that the vessel's speed increases the risk of serious injury and death to whales.

Ragen said that "even 25 knots is remarkably fast."

"High-speed ship strikes are a significant issue with North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales, and ship size and speed are a factor. The higher the speed, the more difficult it is to avoid animals, especially in this case when you
have a dense congregation of lots of whales," he said.

"This is the kind of issue where everyone would benefit from consultation, which could have identified measures to reduce the risk to whales.

The essence of consultation is that you can consult with agencies responsible for
protection," according to Ragen. "Anyone can always find a set of experts, but you need objective experts who can look at this from all different perspectives."

After approving the loan guarantee in January 2005, the Maritime Administration issued a "record of categorical exclusion determination" on March 15, 2005, indicating the loan guarantee did not require further review under the National
Environmental Protection Act because it would not result "in a change in the effect on the environment."

Yates said that as far as he knows, MARAD did not make an informal check with his agency on any potential effects before granting the exclusion.

The determination record also notes that when MARAD reviewed the proposed loan guarantee in December 2004, "there appeared to have been very little, if any, (federal) or state environmental work performed related to the proposed ferry
service." However, on Feb. 23, 2005, the Hawai'i Department of Transportation issued its own environmental exemption to the "minor" improvements at four harbors to accommodate the Hawaii Superferry.

MARAD cited the state exemption as its other reason for granting the federal exclusion.

The Hawai'i Supreme Court ruled in August the state exemption was a mistake because the Hawai'i DOT considered only the harbor projects alone, without examining the potential impacts of their intended user, Hawaii Superferry.

Yates said that since 2005, the National Marine Fisheries Service "has proactively engaged various parties, including Superferry officials, to express our concern over possible impacts to (Endangered Species Act) listed marine species.

Those discussions outlined our concern over the threat of ship strikes to protected species, particularly humpback whales."

"Our contact included meetings and several letters. We outlined our concerns about the continued potential for ship strikes despite the commendable efforts Superferry had already made on its whale-avoidance policy."

Yates also pointed out that despite its concerns, the agency does not have authority to impose itself into the Superferry issue. One federal agency cannot require a consultation with another federal or state agency or a private business
that is undertaking an action that may effect the environment, he said.

However, the action may be subject to litigation, and the Sierra Club, Maui Tomorrow, the Kahului Harbor Coalition and Friends of Haleakala National Park challenged the MARAD exclusion in federal court in August 2005. U.S. District Judge Helen Gillmor dismissed the suit in September 2005, ruling that decisions regarding federal loan guarantees by law cannot be contested. She did not rule on whether the exclusion was proper.

Since the National Marine Fisheries Service could not force MARAD into a consultation, the agency approached the Hawaii Superferry about voluntarily applying for a "Section 10" incidental-take permit, which would protect the
company from prosecution for illegally injuring or killing marine mammals in the event of a collision.

As a condition of obtaining a permit, applicants must work with the service to develop a conservation plan specifying actions that would minimize the risk of harm and show there would be no appreciable impact on the survival of the
species in question.

Yates said a Section 10 consultation with Hawaii Superferry could have been completed by the time the ferry started service, but the company declined to apply for a permit.

When asked about whether the company was considering applying for an incidental-take permit, O'Halloran said the ferry "is leaving all avenues open."

No other vessel operators in Hawai'i have sought incidental-take permits, Yates said.

click at right to comment Island Breath Blog

see also:
Island Breath: Council HSF Resolution 10/4/07
Island Breath: Recent Superferry News 9/29/07
Island Breath: Superferry Lawsuit Links 9/17/07


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