Monk Seals Tied to Land and Sea: A Look at Critical Habitat
Miyoko Sakashita and
The land and sea of ka pae ‘āina o Hawai‘i (the Hawaiian archipelago) have been home to our Hawaiian monk seals for millions of years – even before the island of Hawai‘i rose from the sea floor. The ‘āina (land) along our coasts serves as critical nurseries and resting places for the seals, and the kai (sea) surrounding our islands provides important foraging and mating grounds. Our ‘āina and kai are essential to the survival of these highly endangered animals. In fact, our islands are the only place in the world that provides habitat to sustain them.
Hawaiian monk seals are on a path toward extinction unless we take steps to protect them. Accordingly, in 2008 KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, Center for Biological Diversity, and Ocean Conservancy petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate the beaches and coastal waters around the main Hawaiian Islands as critical habitat for the seal. The seals can no longer survive in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands alone; they are dying from starvation, and only one of every five pups born there will survive to adulthood. The main islands are also needed for their recovery. With critical habitat designation in the remote and main islands, and implementation of recovery actions, the seals have a chance.
Critical habitat is one of the strongest planning tools available to save the Hawaiian monk seal from extinction. Once critical habitat is designated, the federal Endangered Species Act requires careful review of federally funded or permitted projects to determine whether the activity will destroy or adversely modify those features of the designated area that are essential to the seal’s survival and recovery; if so, then the project must be modified to reduce its impact.
Unless you are planning to undertake a federally funded or permitted project on the coast or in the ocean, critical habitat will not affect you. You and your ‘ohana (family) can still go to the beach, fish, gather, swim, surf, snorkel, dive, boat, and do all of the things you enjoy doing there now. Critical habitat will not limit public access. In fact, critical habitat designation is not only essential to the survival of the monk seal, it will benefit all of us who love and depend on Hawai‘i’s ‘āina and kai.
There are many reasons why our monk seals are on the brink of extinction. If we can share the ‘āina and kai of the main Hawaiian Islands with the seals – a species that has called ka pae ‘āina home for millions of years – they will have a chance to survive beyond our generation.
Critical Habitat in a Nutshell
- Critical habitat is essential to the endangered Hawaiian monk seal’s survival – without the land and sea seals depend on to live, they will go extinct.
- You can still go to the beach, fish, gather, swim, surf, snorkel, dive, boat, and do all of the things you do now in critical habitat – designation will not restrict public access.
- The main effect of critical habitat is to require greater review of federally funded or permitted projects to minimize harm to the habitat. The ESA is a federal law – it makes sense to prohibit federal actions from harming or destroying critical habitat for endangered species.
- Protecting monk seal critical habitat is good for the seals, good for our marine resources, and good for everyone who depends on and enjoys the ocean in Hawai‘i.
Miyoko Sakashita is Oceans Director with the Center for Biological Diversity. Koalani Kaulukukui is President of KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance and serves on the Board of Directors of the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i.