The National Marine Fisheries Service has issued a final rule designating 7,000 square miles of beaches and coastal waters around the main Hawaiian Islands as “critical habitat” for Hawaiian Monk seals. The new ruling grants more protections for the seals, some of the most critically endangered marine mammals on the planet. There are only about 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals left, and the population is believed to be falling about 3 percent per year. Critical habitat for the seals had already been designated in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands in 1986, but he seals have been seen more frequently in the main islands in recent years.
The new ruling would place stronger restrictions over federal activities about Hawaiian coastal waters and on its beaches–but only on Federal activities and those funded or permitted by the United States Government. It “does not interfere with fishing, gathering, swimming, or other beach activities. The critical habitat designation affects only federal, not state or local, actions … 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,” according to a joint press release from nine environmental organizations, three of which— the Center for Biological Diversity, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, and Ocean
Conservancy—had first petitioned the Feds to enact the restrictions in 2008.
“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,” maintained the press release.
“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.
Hawaiian monk seals are among the oldest and most primitive of all seal species. Their closest relatives are halfway around the globe, in the Mediterranean; a Caribbean monk seal species is already believed to be extinct. Among the dangers they face are habitat degradation and the danger of becoming by-catch in fishing nets. If global warming submerges the atolls of Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, then the main Hawaiian Islands will become even more critical to their survival. But they’ll still have to share the beaches with human bathers and surfers—a problem, since they’re notoriously solitary creatures and can be surly if disturbed. Messing with a monk seal on a beach is not a good idea for either humans or seals, Federal restrictions or no.
“Protecting coastal and marine habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal is also good for Hawai`i’s people, culture and economy,” noted 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.”
“Preventing the monk seal from going extinct is not rocket science; we can do this,” believes Said Mike Gravitz, directs policy for the Marine Conservation Institute and heads its monk seal program: “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.”
More information on the seals can be found here