STAR-BULLETIN / FEBRUARY 2008
A monk seal rests on the sand at Kapiolani Beach Park near the Wall in Waikiki. Tourists and beachgoers are kept away by yellow tape marking the area around the seal.
Petition filed for seal habitat
Three groups seek more safeguards for the sea mammals
Three environmental groups are seeking to expand the critical habitat area for endangered Hawaiian monk seals, including beaches and surrounding waters of the main Hawaiian Islands.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Ocean Conservancy and KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance say the additional protection is needed to save the mammals as rising sea levels and erosion eat away at beaches in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
A petition was filed Wednesday with U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and James Balsiger, an administrator of fisheries at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
"Prompt designation of these areas as critical habitat is an essential step if the Hawaiian monk seal is to have a future," said the 41-page petition authored by Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the San Francisco-based center.
Hawaiian monk seals are among the most endangered marine mammals in the world, with fewer than 1,200 remaining. Their population is declining at a rate of 4 percent annually.
The seals are already protected under the Endangered Species Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act and state wildlife laws.
However, expanding the critical habitat designation would help conservation efforts and provide more funding for research and education, Sakashita said. Also, the habitat area would require consultation with federal authorities for any government action, such as construction, to ensure there is no harm to the habitat or species.
NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency responsible for protecting the seals, said it was aware of the filing but had not received a copy of the petition as of last week.
"When we do, NOAA Fisheries will evaluate it carefully and decide on the appropriate next steps," Bill Robinson, the agency's regional administrator of the Pacific Islands Regional Office, said in a statement.
Most seals live in the remote and largely uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, with about 80 to 100 seals in the main Hawaiian Islands.
Food limitation, shark predation, entanglement, disease, habitat loss and disturbance, fisheries interactions and pollution "are driving this already small population to the brink of extinction," the petition said.
"The main Hawaiian Islands, however, provide one of the most promising avenues of recovery for the species," it said. "Designating the proposed area as critical habitat would provide meaningful protection against many of these threats and would aid in ensuring the continued survival and eventual recovery of the species."
"Global warming and sea-level rise are considered an overarching threat to the seals' survival as critical pupping beaches are being lost, the groups said.
That's one reason why seals living in the densely populated main islands are healthier than in the remote lower-lying atolls and small islands.
"They're a lot fatter and their foraging grounds are a lot better," Sakashita said. "(This) is an effort to protect that habitat so that it can be a refuge and hopefully their population will grow."
"Vicki Cornish, a wildlife experts at the Ocean Conservancy, said designating critical habitat in the main Hawaiian Islands would protect against federal actions that could threaten monk seal survival.
"If we don't act soon we stand to lose forever this treasured part of Hawaii's natural heritage," she said. "Preventing the extinction of the Hawaiian monk seal needs to become a national priority."
"The closely related Caribbean monk seal was recently declared extinct and many experts fear Hawaiian and Mediterranean monk seals could be the next to go.
"Humans have taken so much from our oceans, it is time for us to start giving back," said Marti Townsend of KAHEA. "Designating additional critical habitat for the last remaining monk seals is crucial to ensuring this uniquely Hawaiian species is not de-listed because it is extinct, but rather because it has survived the harms of humanity's excesses."