Shearwaters more important than Friday night football

Two Saturdays ago, scanning my Facebook feed, I found a post from County Council Chair Mel Rapozo of a picture of the sparse crowd at the Kapaa High-Waimea High football game.

It was being played in the afternoon because of restrictions on lights at Vidinha Stadium that protect the endangered Newell’s shearwater, a bird whose welfare directly benefits Kauai. It’s not just stadium lights that are a problem, but Vidinha and its Friday night football tradition have made it the symbol of an ugly, unnecessary controversy.

Playing games at night when the moon is either waxing or waning can cause shearwaters to mistake the football field for the shimmering ocean and circle endlessly — probably hoping to find fish — until exhaustion causes them to fall to the ground.

Mel’s post on Facebook, together with things I’ve heard him say in the past, made it clear that he views the restrictions on night football games as largely unnecessary.

In a manner of speaking, Mel lit up the island. Within a couple of hours, the post had attracted 136 comments — most of them venomously enraged. A couple examples:

w “Duck the Firds,” “Buck the Firds,” and then the inevitable variant using the F-word itself.

w “Since when is (sic) birds more important the (sic) humans! It’s such bull that the birds are more important!”

w “How are birds more important than keiki? And these aren’t even REAL native birds either LOL… before all these invaders came life was good.”

w “Disgusting when birds are more important than our kids health. Something MUST be done.”

You get the drift. It’s an unfortunate commentary on how many on Kauai have lost track of the connection between our welfare and that of the shearwaters and endangered Hawaiian petrels.

Shearwaters were here LONG before the ancient Polynesians arrived and there is speculation that the settlers only found Hawaiian islands because they saw shearwater flocks, realized they were probably over fish and then followed them when they started to fly back to shore.

The Polynesians, after all, were brilliant people and navigators. Incidentally, today’s Kauai fishermen still realize that shearwaters in the air mean schools of small fish are directly below them, with bigger food fish like yellowfin tuna, ahi, aku, mahi mahi and ono below them. So, to this day, the shearwaters guide fishermen to our food.

More than that, the shearwaters and petrels, I found, are responsible for there being inhabited life on Kauai at all. That’s because, 5 million years or so, Kauai was the youngest of the current-day main Hawaiian Islands and it was nothing but a chunk of hardened lava.

But eventually, the shearwaters and other birds came along, roosted on the island and flew out to sea to find fish. That set in motion billions of trips out to the ocean and back by these and other birds that, gradually, created the tillable land mass we now call Kauai. So it is literally true that without hundreds of thousands of years of shearwater poop, we would not be here on our beloved island today.

Moreover, shearwaters are critically endangered and 90 percent of the world population lives on Kauai. A frantic effort is under way to find ways to assure their survival, not just for sentimental reasons, but because the shearwater has, through millennia, proven how important it is for an isolated island to maintain as much of the balance of nature as possible.

Lights — and lit stadiums, in particular — come into play when young shearwaters first take to the air (about this time every year). So it’s not for no reason that, a few years ago, the federal government filed an enforcement action against Kauai County to require, among other things, that sports events involving bright lights not occur at night during certain phases of the moon during a few months of the year.

Some games can continue to be played at night. Others cannot. One of the experts with whom I spoke pointed out that shearwaters will give up their search for fish if they lose sight of the water for 15 minutes or more. A simple solution that might permit more night football games would be to turn off stadium lights at halftime, or to cover Vidinha with a canopy — open to the side so the tradewinds can still work their magic — eliminating the big blob of light.

For 10 years, the federal government has been pressing Kauai County to come up with a comprehensive Habitat Conservation Plan (HCP), but the county has dragged its feet. Needed is a plan to permit a limited number of birds to be injured or die (these are called “takes”) in exchange for the county participating in new programs to amp up shearwater breeding so the population as a whole can thrive.

For some inexplicable reason (read that “false economy”), the county has not yet agreed. But until just a couple of weeks ago, bird experts were optimistic that such a plan was actually in the final phases of drafting and there might soon be a compromise.

Then the latest monkey wrench was thrown when the Hawaii Department of Transportation abruptly withdrew from the HCP process. Without the state agency as a participant, the agreement cannot be consummated. The state gave no reason, but bird experts believe it was because officials fear that the harbor and the airport could not easily comply with light restrictions.

That’s where things are. So if people who took after the birds so venomously on Facebook would do a little homework and focus their efforts constructively, political pressure could be brought on the county and state to settle this dispute for good.

That would be better than crude griping about a situation and an animal with such a critical part in the life cycle of Kauai. A few Friday night football games are a small price to pay. But even that cost could be mitigated if only the county and state would get their act together.

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Allan Parachini is a former journalist and PR executive. He is a Kilauea resident.

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