Return to night lights raises questions

We like night high school football. It’s long been a wonderful tradition, on Kauai and elsewhere, for high school teams to play on Friday nights.

On Kauai, however, night football during shearwater fledgling season, Sept. 15 to Dec. 15, became a legal issue about seven years ago when the deaths of Newell’s shearwaters were blamed on the lighting policies at county facilities.

Officials said seabird fledglings can become confused by stray light during their first nocturnal flight from their nesting burrow to the sea. Some of these birds end up falling inland, where they can become prey for predators or can be struck by cars.

In a 2010 Justice Department plea agreement, the county and Kauai Island Utility Cooperative admitted to violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Since, Kauai hasn’t had a night football game during the shearwater fledgling season.

Tonight, it will, at Hanapepe Stadium.

Why? What changed that after all these years, Kauai suddenly has night football again after Sept. 15?

Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. said in press release Monday he signed a memorandum of understanding between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the County of Kauai to allow the county to use stadium lights for night football.

He pointed out that the county continues to participate in the Kauai Seabird Habitat Conservation Plan currently in development by the State Department of Land and Natural Resources, which intends to provide a long-term agreement on the use of stadium facilities beyond this football season. The current timeline of completion for that application is the spring of 2018.

“I believe we were granted this opportunity by the federal government as our island – including various stakeholders at the state, county, private business and community — have always operated in good faith, from retrofitting our lights to pursuing training and educational outreach campaigns to perpetuate the importance of protecting our endangered seabirds,” the mayor said.

The county has spent millions to retrofit lights in county parks and KIUC has also invested in seabird protections.

We give both credit for doing their best to take steps to protect seabirds.

Regarding night football, the MOU says the county will establish an escrow account, by Nov. 15, for $60,000 to be used in the event that seabirds are found grounded or down for the purpose of mitigating impacts to the seabirds.

It also, in the MOU, states that should four or more seabirds be downed because of the night football games, the remaining games this season will not occur at night. It will have at least four people trained to identify and handle seabirds at the games.

Good steps and we’re glad the county is taking them.

There are a few issues to consider.

One, Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t signed the MOU it drafted and gave to the county to sign. If it doesn’t, that means in summary that the county is allowing this night football game to go on with some legal risks if shearwaters are injured or die.

It seems odd, after all these years without a night game between Sept. 15 and Dec. 15, to rush and announce a night game will be played when all the paperwork has not been signed. What’s the hurry? Why not wait until all the ducks are in a row?

And what’s the hurry on the county’s side to have a night game? Why announce Monday the mayor signed an MOU with Fish and Wildlife and quickly reschedule a football game from Saturday afternoon to Friday night and rescheduled homecoming activities? It did so knowing Fish and Wildlife had not yet signed off on the MOU. Perhaps the county expected Fish and Wildlife to quickly sign off, too, and it likely will, perhaps even today. But it seems we could have easily waited until next week to have a night game on Kauai.

But toss all that aside and let’s talk about the birds.

These words by Earthjustice Attorney David Henkin are hard to ignore:

“There will be harm to birds if we keep the stadium lights on during the fledgling seasons.”

So we must ask, aren’t these the same seabirds that steps are being taken to protect on and around Kauai?

Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project, earlier this month, used a helicopter to fly 18 Newell’s shearwater chicks to the Nihoku predator-proof sanctuary inside Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge.

Aren’t shearwaters some of the very birds the state wants to create a sanctuary of sorts for on Lehua Island by spending a million dollars in hopes of eradicating the rats there?

And Pacific Missile Range Facility recently began its “Dark Skies” program. PMRF will be turning off all non-essential lighting on the base and modifying night time operations to help protect rare Hawaiian seabirds and prevent “shearwater fallout.”

Yet, at the same time, we are about to return to night football on Kauai, even though, as Henkin points out, the endangered seabirds will be harmed. They will likely be injured, perhaps killed.

Ironic, isn’t it, we will take extraordinary steps to protect these seabirds, and at the same time, take smaller ones that endanger them.

Now, some don’t care about the birds. They don’t like them and consider them a nuisance. They point out there are lots of them and a only a few might be hurt because of a night football game with lights on. And it is clear there is strong support for high school football games at night over Saturday afternoons, when it’s hotter and more humid.

Certainly, the atmosphere will be electric for tonight’s game. Night football is a beloved tradition and we hope players, fans and coaches enjoy it.

We also hope that no seabirds are harmed tonight or during any other night games. If they are, one must ask if the return to night games during fledgling season was worth it.

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