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Habitat Protection Sought for Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal
SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 2, 2008 (ENS) - Three conservation groups filed a formal petition today asking the federal government to protect areas on the main Hawaiian islands as critical habitat for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal under the Endangered Species Act.

As monk seal populations plummet on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, the main islands are playing an increasingly important role in the conservation of the species, the groups say.

The petition, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, and Ocean Conservancy, seeks to have beaches and surrounding waters on the main Hawaiian islands designated as critical habitat to better protect this unique monk seal.

Hawaiian monk seal (Photo courtesy NOAA)
Currently, the species has critical habitat designated only on the northwestern islands, a 1,400 mile-long chain of small islands and atolls northwest of the main islands that are protected as the country's only national marine monument.

Still, the monk seals in the northwestern islands are dying of starvation, emaciated and weak, scientists have found. Pups have only about a one-in-five chance of surviving to adulthood. Other threats include drowning in abandoned fishing gear, shark predation, and disease.

"Habitat in the main Hawaiian islands is essential to the survival of the monk seals," said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the petition. "Critical habitat protection could be the best chance of recovery for these struggling seals."

Hawaiian monk seals are one of three species of monk seals. The Mediterranean monk seal is also critically endangered, while the Caribbean monk seal, which has not been seen in half a century, was declared extinct in June.

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. Since the 1950s its population has dropped to about 1,300 animals and will likely drop below 1,000 seals within a few years, scientists say.

"Saving the Hawaiian monk seal is not just about saving a species, but perpetuating the unique culture that has flourished around it," said Marti Townsend, program director at KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.

"Designating additional critical habitat for the last remaining monk seals is crucial to ensuring this uniquely Hawaiian species is not de-listed because it is extinct, but rather because it has survived the harms of humanity's excesses," Townsend said.

Hawaiian monk seals are increasingly populating the main islands, where they are giving birth to healthy pups. For the past decade, the number of Hawaiian monk seal births has increased each year on the main islands, and the population of seals is growing steadily; the seals are in better condition than those in the northwestern islands. This indicates more food availability and a better chance of survival.

But monk seals on the main islands are threatened by disturbance, development, disease, and entanglement in fishing gear.

Diver attempts to rescue a Hawaiian monk seal that is entangled in derelict fishing gear. (Photo courtesy NOAA)
"Designating critical habitat in the main Hawaiian islands would protect against federal actions that could threaten monk seal survival. If we don't act soon we stand to lose forever this treasured part of Hawaii's natural heritage," said Vicki Cornish of Ocean Conservancy. "Preventing the extinction of the Hawaiian monk seal needs to become a national priority."

Global warming is also a threat to the survival of Hawaiian monk seals.

Already, the conservation groups warn, important pupping beaches have been lost due to sea-level rise and erosion, and the northwestern islands will eventually disappear under predicted levels of sea-level rise since they are elevated only a few meters above sea level. The higher-elevation main islands are less vulnerable to sea-level rise.

Under the Endangered Species Act, critical habitat identifies geographic areas that contain features essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species and may require special management considerations.

The designation of critical habitat does not affect land ownership or establish a refuge, wilderness, reserve, preserve, or other conservation area. It does not allow government or public access to private lands.

Recent studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to be recovering as species without it.

But the Bush administration has been resistant to protecting critical habitat and has most often done so as the result of a lawsuit brought by conservation groups..

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appends a blanket statement regarding critical habitat to many of its press releases, stating, "In 30 years of implementing the Endangered Species Act, the Service has found that the designation of critical habitat provides little additional protection to most listed species, while preventing the Service from using scarce conservation resources for activities with greater conservation benefits. In almost all cases, recovery of listed species will come through voluntary cooperative partnerships, not regulatory measures such as critical habitat."

The Endangered Species Act requires that the government respond to this petition within 90 days.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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