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From:  Andrea

Last night at the public hearing on the Draft Science Plan for Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, held at the monument office in Hawaii Kai, a troubling consequence of the lack of environmental review was elucidated.

One of the Science Plan authors stated that research activities that have already been permitted are assumed to have gone through a “rigorous” review by management.  The problem?

Actually, there could be quite a few from this muddy statement.  For one, this statement suggests that research activities that have already been permitted will not be scrutinized- nor, certainly, environmentally assessed- in the future.  It sounds like grandfathering-in existing and previous permits, meaning some activities that have been permitted in the past will be continuously assumed to pass muster, despite never actually being environmentally reviewed.

Clearly, grandfathering-in research activities so that they never undergo environmental review creates informational ravines that make cumulative impact analysis impossible.  Cumulative impacts, the incremental impacts of an action when added to other past, present, and reasonably foreseeable future action, must be assessed.  The managers need to understand the big picture, especially when making seemingly small decisions like permitting.

Secondly, what is this “rigorous” review that the manager mentioned?  There has been no environmental assessment on any permits nor the entire permitting system nor the Science Plan, so it clearly was not environmental review.  If this rigorous review were undertaken via the prioritization system of the Science Plan, that, too, is problematic.

As I have blogged before, the Science Plan has two tragic flaws:  (1)  the prioritization scheme that doesn’t actually prioritize permit activities (To prioritize permit activities, it asks, pros and…pros?, leading to 97% of potential research activities to be ranked as “critical” or “high” in importance.) and (2)  the lack of environmental review.

But, the environmental assessment did not come with the Science Plan.  The managers argue that this is the draft plan, so environmental assessment is not appropriate now.  However, they also proclaim the plan to be an evolving document- not problematic necessarily.  The evolving nature of the plan is problematic, however, for lack of environmental review because, if it is meant to evolve, when would the managers consider environmental review appropriate? There could always be an argument that it is not truly finalized yet if it’s an “evolving” document.

On the other side, if the monument managers, in fact, conduct an environmental assessment for the Final Science Plan, which is the next step after last night’s public hearing, the decision on permitting prioritization will have been made.  And, environmental assessment is legally required to take place prior to decision-making.  The whole point of environmental review is for decision-makers to be informed of environmental impacts before they make final decisions.

So, either the Science Plan truly is an evolving document, in which case an environmental review is likely to be put off forever.  Or, the Science Plan will be finalized in the next step, the Final Science Plan, which frustrates the point of environmental review taking place before decisions are made.

Confusing?  Yes.  But it need not be.

KAHEA urges the monument managers to take the straightforward approach by conducting environmental review of the Science Plan, which guides the entire permitting process, prior to finalization of the plan.  KAHEA also urges environmental review of all permits- no grandfathering-in.  Each proposed permit should be looked at with a fresh eye, through the lens of cumulative impacts, which inherently change over time.

Let’s hope that public comments are indeed incorporated into the Final Science Plan, whenever that may be.  Otherwise, the one-sided prioritization system will continue to rank most activities high, leading to excessive access and impact in a fragile, irreplaceable ecosystem.

What can you do?  Speak up!

Last public hearing on the Science Plan  is in Hilo tomorrow:

Hawai‘i, July 23th, 6-8 p.m.
Mokupapapa Discovery Center,
308 Kamehameha Ave, Suite 203, Hilo, HI, 96720.

All written public comments must be received by the monument managers by or before August 10.

• U.S. Mail:
Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, Attn: Science Plan Comments, 6600 Kalaniana‘ole Hwy, Suite 300, Honolulu HI, 96825

• E-mail: nwhicomments@noaa.gov.

To read the plan:

http://papahanaumokuakea.gov/research/plans/draft_natressciplan.pdf

(It takes a few minutes to download, but once you’re there, skip to page 10 for the prioritization chart.)

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From:  Andrea

Most people are familiar with our inalienable natural rights, as John Locke summed up as life, liberty, and property.  But what about nature’s right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve?

These are the inalienable legal rights that the town of Shapleigh, Maine, voted to grant to nature last February.  Now, in the town of Shapleigh, population 2,326, natural communities and ecosystems are endowed with these inalienable, fundamental rights, and any town resident has “standing” to bring a lawsuit on behalf of natural communities and ecoystems.

Read the Boston Globe article here:

http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2009/07/19/should_nature_be_able_to_take_you_to_court/?page=1

Shapleigh is on the right track.  While critics may argue there are too many potential litigants, ranging from the Kukui tree to the Waimea River, there exists an entire planet of species and ecosystems deserving of the right to exist.  And, sadly, counts of these potential litigants are diminishing.  See:

http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N01296862.htm

The above article, published July 2, reports that more than 800 animal and plant species have gone extinct in the last five-hundred years, with almost 17,000 threatened with extinction now, according to a recent International Union for Conservation of Nature report.  The track record shows that we are failing at conservation.  Endowing nature with the right to exist may bolster our efforts at conserving biodiversity.

Apparent in many facets of our social structure, we have consistently valued profit above nature.  After all, corporations have long had the legal status of a “person” and the corresponding rights, including ability to sue.  If corporations are “persons” in the sense of legal status and rights, then what is the problem with nature possessing rights to exist?  Nature is fundamental to our own existence, quite unlike corporations.

We are behind the time in recognizing nature’s rights.  Notwithstanding the dire situation of lost biodiversity, concepts of an ethical relationship with nature have been around for at least 100 years.  Aldo Leopold, an early environmentalist, wrote about his “land ethic” in A Sand County Almanac.  Based on the idea that ethics should be expanded to encompass nonhuman members of the biotic community, Leopold summed up his land ethic as follows:  “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.  It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  If we humans were on board with this profoundly simple land ethic- and had been during our last couple hundred years of pillaging-, then perhaps we would not be in the situation of having to pass town ordinances to grant nature the right to exist.

But, alas, so is human nature.  Our attempts at control have led us to a precarious precipice:  here, at the edge of continuing to diminish biodiversity, we have a choice.  The town of Shapleigh recognized this watershed moment and stepped in the direction of preservation.

If my town votes for a similar ordinance, you bet I’ll holler aye.  And, when critics question, “how do we know what nature wants?” and argue that the interest is actually ours, I’ll have my response.

Sure, we humans may be the ones instituting this groundbreaking regime of granting legal rights to biota.  But in reality, the idea of humans bringing these suits on behalf of nature is not so far-fetched.  After all, people serve as trustees to bring suits on behalf of incompetent people and trust beneficiaries.  Human implementation of nature’s rights is requisite:  the law is our system, and our impacts and attempts to control ecosystems thus far have led to the gross loss in biodiversity.

Humans- but not corporations- are a part of the planetary ecosystem.  We are not the operators behind an enormous control panel, like we have long been masquerading.  As a single species, we should make room in our legal and socioeconomic structures for the other species to survive, lest we deprive them all of their right to exist.

We should be celebrating and wholeheartedly codifying nature’s right to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve.  Without nature, without Earth, homo sapiens would not exist.

Ho’okahi No Ka ‘Aina A Me Na Kanaka.

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From:  Andrea

The U.S. Coast Guard removed 32 tons of debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands over the Fourth of July weekend.  Much thanks to the Coast Guard for ameliorating the health of our oceans!  See the Honolulu Advertiser article:

http://www.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/20090713/BREAKING01/307130004/U.S.%20Coast%20Guard%20removes%2032%20tons%20of%20debris%20from%20Northwestern%20Hawaiian%20Islands?GID=e/Si+j1sOYkNlMXAMxQScaqw1wgB5/Nurtn+5iNvNh8%3D

While I am glad that efforts to clean up marine litter are taking place, especially in such an  irreplaceable, nationally protected locale, 32 tons is only the tip of the iceberg.  The scale of this problem is vast.  Marine litter filling our oceans is a global problem affecting all people and nations.  Marine litter, of which 80% are plastics, harms marine life, degrades human health, and results in tremendous social, economic, and cultural costs.

The United Nations Environment Programme recognizes this immense ocean dilemma that affects everyone.  In April 2009,   the UN Environment Programme released a report titled “Marine Litter:  A Global Challenge.”  Find the report at:

http://www.unep.org/pdf/UNEP_Marine_Litter-A_Global_Challenge.pdf

“There is an increasingly urgent need to approach the issue of marine litter through better enforcement of laws and regulations, expanded outreach and educational campaigns, and the employment of strong economic instruments and incentives,” the report says.

The report also notes that the “overall situation is not improving.” Thank you, Coast Guard, for your part.  But, we must do our part, too.

What can you do to help reduce marine litter?

  • Keep streets, sidewalks, parking lots, and storm drains free of trash to prevent washing trash into the ocean and waterways.
  • Take reusable items- and less trash and throw-away containers- to the beach.
  • At the beach, be sure to recycle what you can and throw the rest of your trash into trash cans.  Do not leave trash or anything else, like plastic toys or containers, at the beach when you leave.
  • Pick up debris that other people have left; recycle what you can, and throw the rest away in a trash can.
  • When fishing, take all of your nets, gear, and other materials back onshore to recycle or dispose of in a trash can.
  • If you smoke, take your butts with you, disposing of them in a trash can.
  • When boating, stow and secure all trash on the vessel.
  • Participate in local clean-ups.  Here’s one resource:  http://www.adoptabeachhawaii.com/
  • Reduce, reuse, recycle.
  • Serve as an example to others.

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from Stewart:

After the Surfrider Foundation’s Kauai chapter offered a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for killing two Hawaiian monk seals on Kauai, it raised an obvious question: Why is the Surfrider Foundation having to offer a reward? Where is the federal government?

It turns out officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration enforcement division have been investigating the monk seal shootings and went so far as to search a white pick-up truck in hopes of finding the gun used to shoot one of the seals. Click here to read the article. The special agent in charge of NOAA’s Pacific enforcement offfice said the investigation involves a lot of gum shoe detective work and that agents have been able to find some witnesses despite the remoteness of the areas where the seals were killed.

The feds are not just investigating killings; they are also proposing to expand monk seal habitat. In response to a petition from Kahea and two other organizations, the federal government last week announced it would expand the monk seal’s critical habitat to include portions of the main Hawaiian Islands. Here’s the link. The move will not restrict recreational activities like fishing or surfing in the critical habitat areas, but will restrict federal government activities and activities that require federal permits, such as dredging and coastal development.

NOAA has published the regulations expanding the habitat in the Federal Register. Here’s the regulation. And the public has the right to comment; please sign Kahea’s petition in support of the habitat protection.

In the meantime, here’s some monk seal trivia gleaned from NOAA’s proposed regulations.

— Despite concerns of some local fisherman that monk seals are competing for fish, studies have shown that seals prefer eels, wrasses, and bottom-dwelling benthic species and therefore do not compete for many of the fish humans seek to catch for sport and sustenance.

— NOAA received over 100 comments in support of expanding the monk seal’s critical habitat to the main Hawaiian Island; people see the main islands as essential because monk seals are in better physical condition on the main islands than the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and because the low-lying islands and atolls of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands are losing seal habitat because of rising sea levels.

— Scientists believe monk seals occurred in the main Hawaiian Islands before the arrival of humans and are indigenous to the whole Hawaiian Archipelago; the monk seals are believed to have been driven from the main Hawaiian Islands by hunting.

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From Allison Winter, E&E reporter:

The Bush administration has failed to provide safeguards to protect more than a dozen stocks of marine mammals from injury or death in commercial fishing nets, congressional investigators said in a report released yesterday. The Government Accountability Office found that the National Marine Fisheries Service has failed to meet its legal obligation to guard whales, dolphins and other marine mammals from entanglement in fishing gear. The 1994 amendments to the Marine Mammal Protection Act require that the agency establish “take reduction teams” for certain marine mammals to reduce accidental injuries or death in fishing gear. The agency failed to set up teams of experts to protect 14 of 30 different stocks of marine mammals that deserve protection, the report says. False killer whales off the Hawaiian Islands, bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico and Steller sea lions in the eastern and western United States are among animals left without bycatch protection teams.

And for the rest of the stocks, NMFS lacked a “comprehensive strategy” to assess the effectiveness of its program and frequently missed deadlines to set up teams and create safety plans. For most stocks, the agency relies on incomplete, outdated or imprecise data on population size or mortality, GAO found. Federal fisheries officials told GAO they were aware of some of the limitations but did not have enough funding to implement plans or improve their data. For some marine mammal stocks, officials said a take-reduction team would be useless, since the threats to the marine mammals are not from fishing but from other sources, such as Navy sonar exercises. NMFS officials agreed with a recommendation from GAO that the agency develop a comprehensive strategy for assessing the effectiveness of the plans and the regulations. The report came as President George W. Bush this week declared three new national monuments in the Pacific Ocean — a move than won praise from environmental and marine conservation groups. Bush used the announcement as an opportunity to defend his environmental record — often praised for ocean conservation but widely criticized for its policies on public lands, endangered species and climate change.

“For an administration that is desperately trying to create a legacy of ocean stewardship before leaving office, it is disappointing to hear that they have dropped the ball on reducing incidental deaths of mammals due to commercial fishing,” said House Resources Chairman Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), who requested the report. Rahall said the report would create a “solid road map for the tremendous work that lies ahead” and pledged to work with the incoming Obama administration to try to secure protections for whales and other marine species. The report recommends that Congress amend the existing law to specify that the teams are only required for marine mammals that interact with a fishery and change the law’s deadlines to make them easier for NMFS to comply. GAO also recommended that lawmakers require federal officials to report on progress in developing the teams and any limitations hindering the agency. “NMFS faces a very large, complex, and difficult task in trying to protect marine mammals from incidental mortality and serious injury during the course of commercial fishing operations,” the report states.

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On Friday, in response to a petition from KAHEA, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Ocean Conservancy, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced it will consider designating additional critical habitat for the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal in the Northwestern as well as Main Hawaiian Islands. This is an important first step! Hawaiian monk seals are today one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world.

The petition seeks to have beaches and surrounding waters throughout Hawai’i protected as critical habitat for Hawaiian monk seals under the Endangered Species Act.

What will more critical habitat for monk seals do? More critical habitat will require the federal government to limit federal activities that could harm the beaches and nearshore waters used by monk seals. It will prevent the federal government from permitting a private development or constructing a federal highway that might harm protected critical habitat.  It would also give the State access to federal funds to support state efforts to encourage monk seal recovery.

What does it NOT do? This would not in any way limit public access to beaches or give the federal government any new control over our beaches or add any new restrictions on fishing.

Why do we need more critical habitat?The monk seal currently has critical habitat designated only in areas of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where monk seals are dying of starvation and populations of monk seals are plummeting. Seal pups have only about a one-in-five chance of surviving to adulthood. Other threats include becoming entangled and drowning in abandoned fishing gear, shark predation, and disease.

At the same time, the main islands are becoming increasingly important habitat for the monk seals.  Monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands are thriving and giving birth to healthy pups. Hawaiian monk seals are present on each of the main islands, and their numbers are steadily increasing.

“This government finding that it will consider designating critical habitat for monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands marks an important step toward preventing the extinction of the Hawaiian monk seal,” said Miyoko Sakashita, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the petition. “Habitat in the main Hawaiian Islands is essential for the survival of the imperiled monk seals.”

Habitat in the main islands will also provide a refuge for monk seals as sea-level rise floods the low-lying Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Global warming is an overarching threat to the Hawaiian monk seal and its habitat. Already, important beaches where seal pups are born and raised have been lost due to sea-level rise and erosion.

“We have already seen the extinction of the Caribbean monk seal–a relative of the Hawaiian monk seal. The threat is real and we must act now,” said Vicki Cornish, vice president of marine wildlife conservation at Ocean Conservancy.  “We are greatly encouraged by this consideration to extend critical habitat designation in the main Hawaiian Islands. It is a necessary step in making sure Hawaiian monk seals do not suffer the same fate as their relatives.”

Critical habitat designation will mean greater protection of Hawaiian monk seal habitat under the Endangered Species Act. Once designated, any federal activities that may affect the critical habitat must undergo review to ensure that those activities do not harm the Hawaiian monk seal or its habitat.

In passing the Endangered Species Act, Congress emphasized the importance of critical habitat, stating that “the ultimate effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act will depend on the designation of critical habitat.” Recent studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to recover as species without it.

“What happens in the coming few years will determine the survival of this species,” according to Marti Townsend, Program Director of KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.   “We cannot afford the extinction of a creature so sacred in Hawaiian culture and endemic to these islands. And we cannot expect to save this species without engaging in the hard task of meaningfully protecting habitat.”

more info at www.kahea.org.

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hawaiian monk seals

KAHEA, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Ocean Conservancy, filed a formal petition yesterday, seeking to have beaches and surrounding waters on the main Hawaiian islands designated as critical habitat for Hawaiian monk seals under the Endangered Species Act.

Under the Endangered Species Act, critical habitat identifies geographic areas that contain features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and may require special management considerations.

Recent studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering as species without it. Currently, the species has critical habitat designated only on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. Since the 1950s its population has dropped to about 1,300 animals and is continuing to decline. Scientists estimate populations will likely drop below 1,000 seals within a few years.

Monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are dying of starvation, emaciated and weak, scientists have found. Pups have only about a one-in-five chance of surviving to adulthood. Other threats include drowning in abandoned fishing gear, shark predation, and disease.

Hawaiian monk seals are increasingly populating the main islands, where they are giving birth to healthy pups. For the past decade, the number of Hawaiian monk seal births has increased each year on the main islands, and the population of seals is growing steadily; the seals are in better condition than those in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This indicates more food availability and a better chance of survival.

Global warming is also a threat to the survival of Hawaiian monk seals. Already, the conservation groups warn, important pupping beaches have been lost due to sea-level rise and erosion, and the northwestern islands will eventually disappear under predicted levels of sea-level rise since they are elevated only a few meters above sea level. The higher-elevation main islands are less vulnerable to sea-level rise.

Hawaiian monk seals are one of three species of monk seals. The Mediterranean monk seal is also critically endangered, while the Caribbean monk seal, which has not been seen in half a century, was declared extinct in June.

The Endangered Species Act requires that the government respond to this petition within 90 days.

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