The U.S. Coast Guard stopped Hawaii’s new Superferry from sailing this week after deciding it could not guarantee the safety of protesters blocking the harbor on surfboards and small boats.
“The personnel on the spot made a decision,” Hawaii Coast Guard spokesman Lt. John Titchen told United Press International yesterday . “We have to balance … commerce with safety.”
On Tuesday, the ferry’s operator said it was “suspending its Kauai service indefinitely after being informed by the U.S. Coast Guard that it would not be able to assure safe passage for the vessel into Nawiliwili Harbor” on Kauai island.
The announcement followed two days of protests by environmentalists, who say they are worried about the impact of the new ferry — a four-story catamaran that can carry up to 900 passengers and 250 vehicles between Hawaiian islands.
They cite concerns about traffic congestion on land, collisions with humpback whales, the spread of invasive foreign species and strains on harbor capacity.
The incident has raised questions about the Coast Guard’s ability to respond to unconventional demonstrations.
“It was very surprising to us that the Coast Guard couldn’t guarantee safe passage,” Tigh Krekel, who represents the ferry’s investors, told UPI. “We understood that law enforcement was their primary role, so this has us scratching our heads.”
Retired Adm. James Loy, the former Coast Guard commandant who recently visited Hawaii, said the geography of Nawiliwili would have aided the demonstrators.
“There’s a very narrow and difficult passage into the inner harbor,” he said.
Adm. Loy said the Coast Guard is able to maintain public order at large events, such as at July Fourth events in New York Harbor. But he noted that those are “relatively passive crowds” rather than the small bands of determined protesters involved in Nawiliwili.
Lt. Titchen said the protesters were breaking federal maritime laws by violating a special exclusion zone around the ferry. Violators can be fined and face up to 10 years in prison.
But he said Coast Guard officers concluded they could not arrest the protesters safely.
“When you are talking about hauling people into Coast Guard vessels with outboard motors and propellers spinning … it is not safe,” Lt. Titchen said.
Lt. Titchen said the Coast Guard was in contact with the ferry operators and state authorities and that they in turn had made overtures to the protesters.
“We want to reach a peaceful resolution,” he said.
Lt. Titchen said “better preparation and planning” would be necessary if the Coast Guard faced the same situation in the future.