LIHUE — Federal regulators have issued a final rule geared at protecting 7,000 square miles of critical habitat for Hawaiian monk seals, one of the world’s most endangered marine mammals.
The ruling, published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service on Tuesday, requires greater scrutiny of federally funded and permitted projects along coastal areas on the main Hawaiian Islands to protect the native monk seal. It does not interfere with fishing, gathering, swimming or other beach activities.
Critical habitat for the monk seal around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands was previously designated in 1986.
The rule is the result of a petition by the Center for Biological Diversity, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance and Ocean Conservancy.
“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 Hawaii’s wildlife and coastal resources,” said Bianca Isaki of KAHEA. “We appreciate that discussion and, although we had hoped it would be more comprehensive, we’re glad to see the final rule.”
The rule is not expected to be a game changer in the monk seal recovery world. Rather, it will provide the species with another layer of protection from potential impacts of federal projects, according to Rachel Sprague, the Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator for NOAA.
“Because monk seals and people don’t overlap a ton in their diet, but they rely on the same ecosystem in a lot of ways, this helps protect the same ecosystem that people who fish and recreate around Hawaii also use,” Sprague said. “It protects from major dredging projects, for example. It doesn’t automatically stop a project like that from happening, but it does make them take another look at what they’re doing and maybe encourage them to go about their project in a different way that will have lesser impacts on the monk seal and on the ecosystem.”
The critical habitat designation affects federal actions only.
Today, there are about 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals in total, with most of them living in the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But while their numbers are declining in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, monk seals are becoming more populous in the main Hawaiian Islands.
Critical habitat provides them with a safety net. Monk seals are threatened by disease from humans and other animals, fish hooks and nets as well as intentional killings.
Suzanne Case, chairwoman of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said DLNR 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,” Case said. “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.”
Last week NOAA released a draft management plan for the endangered monk seal.
Among the goals of the plan is to create a stable or growing population of more than 500 seals in the main Hawaiian Islands.
There are 45 to 50 monk seals known to regularly visit Kauai.