Government Preparing More Protected Habitat for Hawaiian Monk Seal

Written by on June 16, 2009 in Marine Life, Policy & Ocean Law
Hawaiian monk seal  -  Photo by James Watt/NOAA

Hawaiian monk seal - Photo by James Watt/NOAA

KAHEA, the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance has successfully petitioned the federal government to expand critical habitat designations for the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seals.
Hawaiian monk seal at Laysan Island - Photo by Dr. James P. McVey - NOAA Sea Grant Program

Hawaiian monk seal at Laysan Island - Photo by Dr. James P. McVey - NOAA Sea Grant Program

KAHEA, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Ocean Conservancy filed a request last July to designate more critical habitat for the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal, which was supported last week, on June 12, in a report issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

This critical habitat designation will not affect fishing, surfing or other recreational use of the ocean or beaches, but will restrict federally funded activities and actions that require federal permits, such as channel dredging, military activities or coastal development.

The Hawaiian Monk seal, which grows from 80 cm (2.6 feet) at birth to about 2,40 m (7.9 feet) as an adult, was officially declared an endangered species in late 1976 and is now protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Its population still continued to decline due to lack of adequate critical habitat for its recovery.  It is estimated that only 1,200 individuals remain.  Its close relative, the Mediterranean Monk seal is in even worse shape with only 600 individuals estimated to remain and the Caribbean Monk seal was declared extinct by NOAA only last year.
Hawaiian Islands

Hawaiian Islands

NOAA has a network of volunteers that are trying to protect the seals while they bask.  They are slowly returning to the main Hawaiian region, where single individuals are being seen surfing a wave.  NOAA and the Marine Mammal Center are also conducting significant research as well as other organizations in an attempt to enhance the population and their health.

As part of these efforts the Center for Biological Diversity, the Ocean Conservancy and NOAA are advancing on increasing the seals habitat first in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where the majority of the world’s remaining Hawaiian monk seals are, and then in the main Hawaiian Islands. 

Predation by sharks, a high male-to-female ratios — which drives to several males to take interest in one single female, sometimes leading to the females death — plus human disturbances, such as lobster (their preferred food) overfishing, entanglement in fishing nets and former hunting has lead this species to the brink of extinction.

Hawaiian monk seal basking, Hawaii, Laysan Island - Photo by Dr. James P. McVey/NOAA Sea Grant Program

Hawaiian monk seal basking, Hawaii, Laysan Island - Photo by Dr. James P. McVey/NOAA Sea Grant Program

“What happens in the coming few years will determine the survival of this species,” said Marti Townsend, Program Director at KAHEA.  “We cannot expect to save this species without engaging in the hard task of meaningfully protecting habitat.”

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is commencing its rulemaking process, by which it drafts a proposed rule to revise the monk seal’s critical habitat. Upon publishing the proposed rule, NMFS will solicit public comments on it, which will be incorporated in the final rule. The critical habitat will be revised once the final rule is published.

The monk seal is truly a Hawaiian species and has been designated Hawai΄i’s state marine mammal. The Hawaiian monk seal is endemic to Hawai΄i, meaning it is found nowhere else on Earth. Over the centuries, the ‘Ilioholoikauaua has been honored in oli (chant) and mele (song) as an ‘aumakua (guardian) and a representative of the deities.

Compiled from KAHEA material.

Hawaiian monk seal, Hawaii, Laysan Island - Photo by Dr. James P. McVey/NOAA Sea Grant Program

Hawaiian monk seal, Hawaii, Laysan Island - Photo by Dr. James P. McVey/NOAA Sea Grant Program

Copyright ©  2009 by Marine Science Today, a publication of OceanLines LLC

About the Author

About the Author: Celia is Director of Business Operations for OceanLines LLC and is a frequent contributor to both OceanLines and Marine Science Today. She is a certified diver and her favorite topic is marine biology, especially stories about whales. .

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