Protection Boost for Near Extinct Hawaiian Monk Seals
With fewer than 200 Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands and less than 1,100 left in the world, NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Services has issued new rules that will assist in increased protection for the endangered species.
The new rules will focus on the protection of wildlife areas that are important for foraging, pupping, and resting. It also names coastal areas in the Main Hawaiian Islands as critical habitat.
“Hawai’i has a responsibility to protect our natural and cultural heritage,” said DLNR Chairperson Suzanne Case. “A part of that is making sure that our very special, unique, native Hawaiian monk seals have safe places to thrive. It is a shared responsibility among the people, the state and the federal government. Monk seals are protected under state and federal law even without critical habitat, and this habitat rule will not impact most activities, like swimming, surfing, boating, fishing and gathering.”
The environmental group KAHEA, the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, along with additional environmental organizations, put pressure on the state through a petition to make the change as the Hawaiian Monk Seal is on the brink of extinction.
“In the seven years since we filed the petition to designate critical habitat around the main Hawaiian Islands, there has been a lot of discussion about how to use environmental regulations to care for Hawai’i’s wildlife and coastal resources. We appreciate that discussion and, althrough we had hoped it would be more comprehensive, we’re glad to see the final rules,” said Bianca Isaki of KAHEA.
Under the Endangered Species Act, the protection of areas that are essential to Hawaiian monk seal survival and recovery is required. Once an area is deemed a critical habitat, federally permitted or funded projects may need to take steps to avoid habitat damage.
“We look forward to enhanced state and federal co-management of monk seals throughout Hawai’i,” Case said. “Critical habitat helps manage federal activities to avoid habitat destruction. Most fishermen and other ocean users will never even notice this rule has been implemented. Critical habitat designation is an important tool in the larger effort to recover this valued species, found nowhere else in the world.”
The new rules encompasses areas on most of the Main Hawaiian Islands, but is smaller in size than what NOAA initially proposed, placing emphasis on areas frequented by monk seals for feeding and pupping.
In addition, marine water protections have been made to include key foraging depths on the sea floor, rather than all surface waters. The DLNR thinks the rules will need some modification in time, including dredging, coastal construction, water pollution permits, and military activities.
“Hawaiian monk seals have been in serious trouble for a long time, and these new habitat protections will give them a desperately needed chance at survival,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director with the Center of Biological Diversity.
Earlier this year, the legislature adopted a resolution that directs the DLNR to strengthen rules that pertain to the governing and protection of indigenous marine wildlife, among them marine mammals, like the monk seal; spinner dolphins and sea turtles.
“We see this as an opportunity to improve our partnership with federal natural resources management and it complements the work the State is doing to conserve monk seals,” Case explained.
State and Federal law prohibits the killing of a monk seal. The DLNR says five monk seal killings have taken place since 2011, three on Kauai and two on Molokai.