Do what it takes to save starving monk seals


POSTED: Monday, June 15, 2009

Hawaiian monk seals have been given an important boost from the federal government through proposed expansion of water and beaches designated as critical to their survival. The designation should be accompanied by increased oversight and other measures to help the seals from becoming extinct.

Responding to a petition last July by environmental groups, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration proposes extending the monk seals' critical habitat from the waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which were given the status in 1986 — a decade after Hawaiian monk seals were designated as an endangered species — and extended to their beach areas two years later.

NOAA now has decided to expand the critical area under the Endangered Species Act to waters of the main Hawaiian Islands, including key beach areas where they rest, give birth and raise pups. Some beach areas have been reduced by the rise of sea level and erosion, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the conservation groups that petitioned the government.

Lance Smith, a NOAA biologist, said the agency will look at other areas to give monk seals further protection while the plan undergoes public comment. Developers would be required to meet standards that will be established to preserve the critical habitat when using federal funds or applying for federal permits.

NOAA decided last year the Caribbean monk seals had become extinct, and has observed that the Hawaiian breed has reached a population of about 1,200, declining by abut 4 percent a year during this decade. Federal Judge Samuel King noted nine years ago that it was likely that the fishing industry “;contributes to the starvation of the monk seals,”; but fisheries strongly deny it.

For whatever reason, the seals apparently are not getting enough to eat. Fitted with compact video cameras in a National Geographic project from 1995 to 2002, they were seen dining on a wide variety of crustaceans, squid, octopus and fish, competing for food with large and hungry ulua.

They also are known to be preyed upon by sharks, become entangled in fishing gear and engage in male mobbing, with male seals ganging up on females to mate with them, killing them in the process.

“;We cannot afford the extinction of a creature so sacred in Hawaiian culture and endemic to these islands,”; said Marti Townsend, program director of Kahea: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance. “;And we cannot expect to save the seals without meaningfully protecting critical habitat.”;