New habitat protections will help Hawaiian monk seals avoid extinction

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HONOLULU, Hawaii – The National Marine Fisheries Service today issued a final rule protecting almost 7,000 square miles of critical habitat for Hawaiian monk seals, among the world’s most endangered marine mammals. The ruling requires greater scrutiny of federally funded or permitted projects along coastal areas on the main Hawaiian Islands to protect this native monk seal, and does not interfere with fishing, gathering, swimming, or other beach activities. The critical habitat designation affects only federal, not state or local, actions.

A coalition of Hawaiian and national organizations applauds the critical habitat designation that will help ensure clean and safe coasts for monk seals and everyone who uses the ocean. KAHEA, The Humane Society of the United States, Moloka`i Community Service Council, the Center for Biological Diversity, Monk Seal Foundation, Earthtrust, Conservation Council for Hawai`i, Sierra Club of Hawai`i, and Marine Conservation Institute join this statement.

The monk seal population is down to around 1,100 and falling at 3 percent per year, and critical habitat provides a safety net for the seals. Critical habitat for the monk seal around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands was previously designated in 1986, and seals are increasingly recolonizing the main Hawaiian Islands.

“In the seven years since we filed the petition to designate critical habitat around the main Hawaiian Islands, there has been a lot of critical discussion about how to use environmental regulations to care for Hawai`i’s wildlife and coastal resources. We appreciate that discussion and, although we had hoped it would be more comprehensive, we’re glad to see the final rule,” said Bianca Isaki of KAHEA.

Today’s action is the culmination of a process that began in 2008 with a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance and Ocean Conservancy, involving dozens of public hearings and responses to more than 20,000 public comments.

“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 for Biological Diversity.

“Protecting coastal and marine habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal is also good for Hawai`i’s people, culture and economy,” said Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of Conservation Council for Hawai`i. “The critical habitat rule does not restrict public access — people can still swim, surf, snorkel, fish and gather.”

Without a growing, healthy population in the main Hawaiian Islands — where seals are successfully foraging and reproducing — the seal could go extinct in our lifetime. Federal data show that endangered species with critical habitat protections are twice as likely to recover as those without.

The designation does not make the lands federal, restrict public access, or forbid activities or developments. Critical habitat merely identifies the areas where federal government projects must give extra consideration and minimize destruction and degradation of the coast, something that beach- and ocean-loving Hawaiians would want anyway.

Said Mike Gravitz, director of policy for the Marine Conservation Institute and leader of its monk seal program: “Preventing the monk seal from going extinct is not rocket science; we can do this. The seals in the main Hawaiian Islands need critical habitat, NOAA has to be serious about implementing its own recovery plan, and we need to work with the communities and fishers in Hawaii to listen to their concerns and reduce any conflicts with the seals. If we lose the battle to save the Hawaiian monk seal, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.”