Translocation of Hawaiian Monk Seals From the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to the Main Islands, Deferred

The Hawaiian monk seal research program permit application for conducting activities implementing the monk seal recovery program was published yesterday in the Federal Register.

Monk Seal Institute

The application has deferred for up to 5 years, the proposed translocation of juvenile monk seals from the NWHI to the main islands; the permit application specifically states “no seals would be moved from the NWHI to the MHI.” The merits of the translocation proposal have been debated for the last several years among marine scientists, ocean users and conservationists. (See: http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/permits/monkseal16632.htm).

According to Trisha Kehaulani Watson, who represents the Marine Conservation Institute in Hawai‘i, the deferral was the appropriate move at this time but should be reconsidered for future permit applications based on the seal’s recovery progress over the next five years:

“Translocation of a few seals to the main islands, and then returning them to the NWHI as adults, was something NMFS wanted to try as an experiment to see if it could build up the subpopulation of seals in the NWHI which is currently declining.  It was a novel idea, and not everyone agreed it would work. But NMFS deserves credit for considering it as one measure to maintain the monk seal as part of Hawai‘i’s ‘ohana.  Translocations of individual seals within the main islands are allowed under the permit application, and we support these as necessary to protect their important role in Hawai‘i’s ecology and culture.  Moving seals within the MHI to appropriate locations where they can thrive will be an increasingly important tool as the population of monk seals continues to naturally increase in the main islands.”

“Frankly,” said Watson, “the Hawai‘i office of NMFS is in no position to finance an expensive translocation project right now because the agency’s budget for the monk seal recovery program has been cut by NOAA’s managers from around $5. 5 million in 2010 to roughly $3.5 million in 2012, and further cuts may be in the offing.  NMFS Hawai‘i cannot even pay for things it should be doing now like mounting effective outreach and volunteer programs, responding to the growing number of harmful human actions toward monk seals, and financing its scientific research projects, including its summer research camp in the NWHI.  The focus of the limited funds available needs to be on activities in Papahānaumokuākea and on managing the seal population currently in the main Hawaiian Islands.”

“If the people of Hawai‘i and across the United States want to see the monk seal properly managed and recovered,” she said, “they are going to have to ask their congressional delegation to intervene on the NOAA budget when it comes before the Congress this spring.” Watson noted that 30% of the seals seen alive today are alive because of interventions made by seal managers in Hawai‘i. “That’s a terrific record achieved by NMFS,” she said.

See our Monk Seal Fact Sheet for further information.

About Marine Conservation Institute

Marine Conservation Institute is a U.S. nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting marine ecosystems. We work with scientists, politicians, government officials and other organizations in the United States and around the world to fashion solutions to problems affecting marine ecosystems which are long lasting and compatible with sustainable ocean use. Honua Consulting represents Marine Conservation Institute in Hawai`i.

 

New Research Underscores Vulnerability of Wildlife in Low-Lying Hawaiian Islands

If current climate change trends continue, rising sea levels may inundate low-lying islands across the globe, placing island biodiversity at risk. A new U.S. Geological Survey scientific publication describes the first combined simulations of the effects of sea-level rise and wave action in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, offering the most detailed and multifaceted assessment available of how island biodiversity may be affected by climate change.

USGS ReportThe publication, “Predicting Sea-Level Rise Vulnerability of Terrestrial Habitat and Wildlife of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands,” by Michelle H. Reynolds, Paul Berkowitz, Karen N. Courtot, Crystal M. Krause, Jamie Carter, and Curt Storlazzi is available online at http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2012/1182/.

Recent models predict a rise of approximately 1 meter in global sea level by 2100, with larger increases possible in parts of the Pacific Ocean. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), which extend 1,930 kilometers beyond the main Hawaiian Islands, are a World Heritage Site and part of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. These islands – comprising the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, and Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary – support the largest tropical seabird rookery in the world, providing breeding habitat for 21 species of seabirds, four endemic land bird species and essential foraging, breeding or haul-out habitat for many other resident and migratory wildlife species.

“These magnificent seabirds spend the majority of their adult lives at sea: soaring vast distances over open water searching for food in an over-fished ocean. The one thing they cannot do at sea is reproduce,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “And now their breeding ground is in peril.”

The USGS team led by biologist Michelle H. Reynolds of the USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center modeled what is known as passive sea-level rise (excluding wave-driven effects such as wave flooding and erosion) for islands in this biologically important region. General climate models that predict a temperature rise of 1.8–2.6 degrees Celsius and an annual decrease in rainfall of 24.7–76.3 millimeters by 2100 were applied across the study area.  For the most biologically diverse low-lying island of Laysan, dynamic wave-driven effects on habitat and wildlife populations were modeled for a range of sea-level rise scenarios.

After collecting new high-resolution topographic data in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, the researchers modeled sea-level rise inundation, habitat loss, and calculated wildlife vulnerability. Given a passive sea-level rise of 1 meter, they found, about 4 percent of the land mass of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will be lost. If sea level rises 2 meters, 26 percent of the land mass will be lost. On Laysan Island, within the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge, impacts from storm waves as well as groundwater rise were found to greatly amplify the effects of sea-level rise: from 4.6 percent to 17.2 percent inundation in the 2-meter scenario, for instance. Thus habitat loss would be most dramatic in the wave-exposed coastal habitats and most devastating to species with global breeding distributions primarily on the low-lying Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, such as the Black-footed Albatross (Phoebastria nigripes), Laysan Albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), Bonin Petrel (Pterodroma hypoleuca), Gray-backed Tern (Onychoprion lunatus), Laysan Teal (Anas laysanensis), Laysan Finch (Telespiza cantans), and Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi).

This publication may be a useful tool and a starting place for developing climate change mitigation/adaptation plans as well as future scientific studies for this important region.

 

New Habitat Protections Proposed for Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals

Media Release:

The federal government has proposed to designate more than 11,000 square miles of critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals. The proposed rule protects beaches and coastal waters on all the main Hawaiian Islands and expands protected habitat in the Northwestern Islands. The proposal responds to a 2008 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, and Ocean Conservancy. Hawaiian monk seals are among the most endangered marine mammals in the world, with a population of approximately 1,000 animals. The proposal will protect coastal areas for seals to raise pups and marine waters for foraging.

Map of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monum...

Image via Wikipedia

“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. “The proposal to protect Hawaii’s coastline for monk seals is a landmark decision that will benefit seals and the coastal environment for generations.”

The proposed rule expands the current critical habitat area for the Hawaiian monk seal in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to include deeper waters. It also designates new areas on all of the main Hawaiian Islands: Niʻihau, Kauaʻi, Oʻahu, Molokaʻi, Lānaʻi, Kahoʻolawe, Maui and Hawaiʻi. Areas protected would include coastal land up to five meters inland and waters out to 500 meters in depth, with certain exclusions.

Studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering as species without it. The revised habitat protections are vital for monk seal survival because monk seals are dying of starvation, and populations of the seals on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are plummeting. Seal pups have only about a one-in-five chance of surviving to adulthood. In contrast, monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands are in better condition and giving birth to healthy pups. Hawaiian monk seals are present on each of the main islands, and their numbers are slowly increasing. Thus the main islands are essential important habitat for the monk seals. Additionally, habitat in the main islands will provide a refuge for monk seals as important beaches where seal pups are born and raised have been lost due to sea-level rise and erosion.

Monk Seal sign posted at Onekekaha Beach Park

“Critical habitat compels U.S. 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, executive director at KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.

Critical habitat designation will mean greater protection of Hawaiian monk seal habitat under the Endangered Species Act. Critical habitat protection does not close areas, but it does limit federal government activities that could harm monk seals or their habitat. Once designated, any federal activities that may affect the critical habitat must undergo review to ensure they will not destroy or damage that habitat. For example, habitat protections can help prevent pollution and require modification of construction activities to prevent destruction of the environment.

The proposed critical habitat designation for the Hawaiian monk seal is scheduled to be published in Thursday’s Federal Register. The National Marine Fisheries Service is accepting public comments on the proposal for 90 days.

For more information about Hawaiian monk seal critical habitat and how to comment on the critical habitat designation, go to: http://www.fpir.noaa.gov/PRD/prd_critical_habitat.html.