Like a glove across the face, KAHEA and the Center for Biological Diversity sent a Notice of Intent to Sue yesterday warning federal regulators to expedite the critical habitat designation for Hawaiian monk seals… or else. Critical habitat is the backbone of the Endangered Species Act. It is the mechanism for shepherding species back from the verge of extinction. Over two years ago, we petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to expand the critical habitat designation for the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal. And NMFS agreed the seal needed more habitat to thrive. Yet, more than a year since they agreed with us, NMFS is not any closer to protecting vitally important nearshore areas and deepwater foraging grounds for the seal.
Not surprising, in that year, Hawaiian monk seals have only slipped closer to extinction with a 4% annual decline. In 2009, monk seals had the lowest pupping rate in the past 10 years, with every location in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands experiencing declines. In 2009, only 119 seal pups were born in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, compared with 138 in 2008. But in the Main Hawaiian Islands, birth rates seem more promising with 15 monk seal pups born including six pups on Moloka’i, five on Kaua’i, and two each on O’ahu and Maui. The federal government must act now to update the current protections for Hawaiian monk seals to ensure deepwater foraging areas of the NWHI are protected, as well as the areas being re-populated in the main islands.
Protecting this habitat for monk seals will also protect these areas for humans, too. Subsistence fishers and monk seals benefit from the same protections — where monk seals are protected, shoreline and nearshore non-commercial fishers are also protected. By expanding critical habitat for monk seals, we can ensure subsistence fishing grounds are not built over by hotels, highways, and industrial fish farms.