Critically Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals Granted New Protections

Responding to pressure from environmental groups, the Obama administration has proposed expanding protected habitat for one of the most endangered marine mammals in US waters.  Under a new “critical habitat” designation proposed by the federal government, 11,000 square miles would be protected to allow Hawaiian monk seal populations to recover.  This could help ensure a future for a species long threatened by entanglement in fishing nets, degradation of shoreline environments, and climate change.

“Critical habitat compels US federal agencies to consider the survival of this Hawaiian seal before they permit shoreline development—protecting our beaches and reefs not only for monk seals, but also for Hawaii’s paddlers, fishers, surfers and all people of these islands,” said Miwa Tamanaha, the executive director for KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.

Found only in the Hawaiian Islands, Hawaiian monk seals belong to one of the most ancient living groups of seals, and have helped scientists better understand the evolution of seals as a group.  Only two other monk seal species have existed during historic times.  The Mediterranean monk seal, like its counterpart in Hawaii, has a very limited range is considered critically endangered.  A related species, the Caribbean monk seal, is now thought to be extinct.  

Hawaiian monk seals were themselves hunted to near-extinction during the nineteenth century.  Today their numbers hover at slightly over a thousand individuals—and though they can no longer be legally killed, they continue to decline.  Threats to their survival include fishing practices that allow seals to become trapped and drown in underwater nets, erosion of beaches where monk seals raise their young, exposure to diseases that occurs as a result of interaction with people, and climate change that is disrupting marine ecosystems and causing sea levels to rise and flood the seals’ breeding grounds.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the population of Hawaiian monk seals is declining at a rate of 4% per year.   They are protected under the Endangered Species Act, but for years environmental groups argued the federal government wasn’t doing enough to halt and reverse their decline.  In the year 2000, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups filed a lawsuit to stop fishing activities that threatened to starve Hawaiian monk seals by reducing their food supply.  This was the start of a series of legal fights that eventually resulted in this month’s new critical habitat designation.

The 11,000 square miles now protected for Hawaiian monk seal recovery include shoreline and near-shore waters on all of the eight major Hawaiian Islands, as well as the tiny and mostly uninhabited islands in northwestern Hawaii.  These northwestern islands are where the majority of Hawaiian monk seals currently live.  However smaller monk seal populations have become established and are growing on the larger islands, making the critical habitat designations there particularly significant. 

Setting aside an area as “critical habitat” for a species doesn’t exclude all other uses, but does mean projects likely to harm the species must be reviewed before moving forward.  All plants and animals listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act are supposed to be granted an area of protected critical habitat large enough to allow the species to recover.  According to the Center for Biological Diversity, rare species for which critical habitat is protected are twice as likely to be increasing as those for which no critical habitat is set aside.

“New habitat protections, including all of the Hawaiian Islands, are essential to bring endangered Hawaiian monk seals back from the brink of extinction,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The proposal to protect Hawaii’s coastline for monk seals is a landmark decision that will benefit seals and the coastal environment for generations.”

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