Critical Habitats for Monk Seals to Be Expanded

Three years after receiving a petition from non-profit KAHEA and the Center for Biological Diversity, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Service is proposing 16 “critical habitats” in an effort to increase the protection of endangered monk seals and the areas they inhabit.

Under the Endangered Species Act, the federal government is required to designate critical habitat areas for endangered species.  Until now, the critical habitats for monk seals have been chiefly in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.  This recent proposal will expand these areas and also include a significant amount of shorelines and near shore waters in the main Hawaiian Islands, where monk seals have been increasing in numbers.  As global warming leads to rising sea levels, swallowing up beaches in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, alternative locations for birthing and raising pups on the main islands must be designated.

Miyo Sakashita from the Center for Biological Diversity stated, “Habitat in the main Hawaiian Islands is essential for the survival of the imperiled monk seals”.   Their future is dependent upon the protection of our shorelines.

When an area is designated as a “critical habitat”, it is legally protected from any activity or development that could destroy or negatively alter the resources the species needs to survive.  In the case of the monk seals, this means increased protection of the beaches they may birth on as well as the waters in which they live.  No hotels and no highways can be built in a critical habitat.  In addition, more critical habitat areas mean more access to federal funds to support monk seal recovery.

With only approximately 1,160 monk seals left, the expansion of the critical habitats is a crucial step toward the conservation of the monk seals, the shoreline, and marine life; all significant pieces of a bigger biodiversity picture.

Michael Tosatto, NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands regional administrator, told KHON2, “Monk seals are an important species for Hawaii, and such a valuable part of our ecosystem.  This species faces a number of threats, and it’s imperative we ensure they have safe areas where they can rest and take care of their young”.

NOAA is inviting comments on their proposal through August 31, 2011.  They will also be hosting public hearings, with dates and times to be announced soon.  Comments can be submitted online through the Federal eRulemaking Portal or by writing to the Regulatory Branch Chief, Protected Resources Division (Attn: Proposed Critical Habitat Revision for the Hawaiian monk seal, NMFS Pacific Islands Region, 1601 Kapiolani Blvd., Suite 1110, Honolulu, HI 96814).

In making this positive change to expand and care for critical habitats, we can conserve the lands and sea while facilitating the recovery of an endangered species.