Hawaiian monk seal. Photo courtesy of Kent Backman

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources recently announced it is pleased the federal government has incorporated state input into new rules aimed at further protection for the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, by focusing protection on areas most important for foraging, pupping and resting.

“Hawai‘i has a responsibility to protect our natural and cultural heritage,” DLNR Chairperson Suzanne Case said in a press release. “A part of that is making sure that our very special, unique, native Hawaiian monk seals have safe places to thrive. It is a shared responsibility among the people, the state and the federal government. Monk seals are protected under state and federal law even without critical habitat, and this habitat rule will not impact most activities, like swimming, surfing, boating, fishing and gathering.”

NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Services recently finalized the rule that identifies coastal areas in the Main Hawaiian Islands as critical habitat. This was in response to a petition by a local advocacy group, KAHEA; the Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, and two other environmental organizations.

Hawaiian monk seal. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Hawaiian monk seal. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Hawaiian monk seals face extinction and are one of most endangered marine mammals in the world, with about 200 monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands.

“We look forward to enhanced state and federal co-management of monk seals throughout Hawai‘i,” Case said. “Critical habitat helps manage federal activities to avoid habitat destruction. Most fishermen and other ocean users will never even notice this rule has been implemented. Critical habitat designation is an important tool in the larger effort to recover this valued native species, found nowhere else in the world.”

The Endangered Species Act requires the protection of areas that are essential to Hawaiian monk seal survival and recovery. When an area is designated as critical habitat it means that federally permitted or funded projects may need to take steps to avoid habitat damage. These science-based modifications can help DLNR manage coastal resources.

Hawaiian monk seal. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Hawaiian monk seal. Photo courtesy of NOAA

The final critical habitat rule identifies areas on most of the Main Hawaiian Islands, but NOAA reduced the area from its initial proposed rule. The final rule focuses on areas most frequently used by monk seals for feeding and pupping.

Marine water protections have also been tailored to include the key for aging depths on the sea floor, rather than all surface waters. The activities most likely to require some modifications include dredging, coastal construction, water pollution permits, and military activities.

“We see this rule as an opportunity to improve our partnership with federal natural resources management and it complements the work the State is doing to conserve monk seals,” Case said.

A resolution adopted unanimously by the legislature this year, directs the DLNR   to strengthen rules governing the protection of indigenous marine wildlife, particularly spinner dolphins, marine mammals, and sea turtles and to increase collaboration with federal partners on rules related to spinner dolphins, marine mammals, and sea turtles.

Hawaiian monk seal. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Hawaiian monk seal. Photo courtesy of NOAA

Additional Monk Seal Facts and Information:

There are fewer than 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals left in the world, and they only exist in Hawai‘i and are native species. They have been declining about 4 percent per year for the last decade. As endangered species they are protected under state and federal law.

A 2013 study estimated monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands consume less than .01 percent of our ocean biomass. Commercial fisheries remove 27 percent and recreational fisheries remove 39 percent of available ocean biomass.

It is a felony under both state and federal law to kill a monk seal. Five monk seal killings have occurred since 2011, three on Kaua‘i and two on Molokai. Rewards of up to $10,000 for each incident remain for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible. Anyone with information on these killings is asked to call the toll-free DLNR tipline at 1-855-DLNR-TIP.

The toll-free, 24 hour reporting hotline for all fishing interactions and other marine mammal incidents is: 1-888-256-9840. NOAA and DLNR urge all fishermen and other ocean users to write down this hotline and/or save it in their mobile phones for timely use whenever a seal may be found hooked or entangled

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