Monk Seal Critical Habitat

Learn more about critical habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal, what it means, and why it is critical for the survival of this endemic Hawaiian species.

What is critical habitat?

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) requires the U.S. federal government to designate “critical habitat” for any species it lists under the Endangered Species Act.

Legally, “critical habitat” is defined as:

(1) specific areas within the geographical area occupied by the species at the time of listing, if they contain physical or biological features essential to conservation, and those features may require special management considerations or protection; and

(2) specific areas outside the geographical area occupied by the species if the agency determines that the area itself is essential for conservation.

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 U.S.  federal government any new control over our beaches or add any new restrictions on fishing.

In fact, protecting this habitat for monk seals will also protect these areas for humans, too.  Subsistence fishers and monk seals benefit from the same protections — where monk seals are protected, shoreline and nearshore non-commercial fishers are also protected.  By expanding critical habitat for monk seals, we can ensure subsistence fishing grounds are not built over by hotels, highways, and industrial offshore fish farms.

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. Habitat in the main Hawaiian Islands is essential for the survival of the imperiled monk seals.” - Miyo Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity

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.

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