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New rules aim to protect Hawaiian monk seals

By Staff | Aug 27, 2015

As an endangered species, Hawaiian monk seals are protected under state and federal law. PHOTO BY CHRIS TURNER/RIMFIRE PHOTOGRAPHY.

HONOLULU – The state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) last week reported that it is pleased that the federal government has incorporated state input into new rules aimed at further protection for the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal by focusing protection on areas most important for foraging, pupping and resting.

“Hawaii has a responsibility to protect our natural and cultural heritage,” explained 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 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Services (NMFS) recently finalized the rule that identifies coastal areas in the Main Hawaiian Islands as critical habitat.

This was in response to a petition by a local advocacy group, KAHEA; the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, and two other environmental organizations.

Hawaiian monk seals face extinction and are one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world with about 200 monk seals in the Main Hawaiian Islands. ??

“We look forward to enhanced state and federal co-management of monk seals throughout Hawaii,” said Case.

“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 native species found nowhere else in the world.” ??

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires the protection of areas that are essential to Hawaiian monk seal survival and recovery. When an area is designated as critical habitat, it means that federally permitted or funded projects may need to take steps to avoid habitat damage. These science-based modifications can help DLNR manage coastal resources.

The final critical habitat rule identifies areas on most of the Main Hawaiian Islands, but NOAA reduced the area from its initial proposed rule. The final rule focuses on areas most frequently used by monk seals for feeding and pupping.

Marine water protections have also been tailored to include the key foraging depths on the sea floor, rather than all surface waters. The activities most likely to require some modifications include dredging, coastal construction, water pollution permits and military activities.

“We see this rule 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,” said Case.

A resolution adopted unanimously by the legislature this year directs the DLNR to strengthen rules governing the protection of indigenous marine wildlife, particularly spinner dolphins, marine mammals and sea turtles, and to increase collaboration with federal partners on rules related to spinner dolphins, marine mammals and sea turtles.

There are fewer than 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals left in the world. They only exist in Hawaii and are a native species. They have been declining about 4 percent per year for the last decade.