NOAA reopens comment period on monk seal critical habitat

| November 16, 2011 | 0 Comments

This monk seal at Kepuhi Beach on Molokai's West End takes time to rest. New federal rules under consideration will expand the areas considered critical habitats to the endangered species.

Confusion between two different programs to assist in the recovery of the endangered Hawaiian monk seals has prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to extend the comment period on critical habitats until Jan. 6, 2012.

Public hearings on new rules to expand the monk seals critical habitat were held statewide, including Molokai on Aug. 8. The Fisheries Service for NOAA conducted the meetings and kept the comment period open until Aug. 31.

Overlapping the critical habitat issue was a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) being conducted on a monk seal recovery action plan. On Aug. 24, a meeting on Molokai discussed the PEIS plan to address the serious population declines of the monk seal.

According to Pacific Islands Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of NOAA, monk seal populations have been steadily declining by 4 percent per year in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, from over 1,400 seals in 1998 to less than 1,000 today. The recovery action will take young female monk seal pups in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and relocate them to the main Hawaiian Islands for three years before returning them to their original home.

It was on June 2 that NOAA Fisheries proposed the rule changes to revise the monk seals critical habitat. The plan is to designate more than 11,000 square miles of coastal and marine critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals. The proposed new rules will protect beaches and coastal waters on all the main Hawaiian Islands and expand protected habitat in the Northwestern Islands.

As a result of the overlap and confusion between these two separate but related monk seal issues, “We received letters asking us to reopen the comment period,” said Jean Higgins, protected species biologists for the Protective Resources Division of NOAA Fisheries. “We thought it was the right thing to do.”

Specific areas proposed for the main Hawaiian Islands include terrestrial and marine habitat from five meters inland from the shoreline extending seaward to the 500-meter depth contour around: Kaula Island, Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Maui Nui (including Kahoolawe, Lanai, Maui, and Molokai) and Hawaii.

The current Hawaiian monk seal population is estimated at 1,161 individuals according to the Pacific Islands Regional Office of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

Monk seals need beaches and marine waters to support their survival. Only one in five juvenile monk seals survives in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, so new habitat protections are vital in the main Hawaiian Islands, where monk seals are giving birth to healthy pups.

The critical habitat issue looks at what this expansion would do to the essential features of the habitat, including pupping grounds. NOAA considers the impact on the monk seal as a result of expanding the habitat, as well as the impact on the habitat itself and those who use it. How to mitigate these impacts is also under consideration.

The new rule will explain how these essential features are necessary to the survival and recovery of the monk seal. By more carefully defining these habitats in relation to monk seals, the new rule offers habitat-specific protections for any federal project.

“It is specific to federal agency projects carried out, funded or permitted, not your everyday user,” Higgins explained. In other words, only those industries that are subject to Federal Endangered Species Act Section 7 consultation will be affected.

While some Molokai comments were not in support of the new rule, many here have supported the rule as a way to protect remote areas from development, according to Higgins. Because any future development must take these federally-protected critical habitats into consideration, the anti-development Molokai commenters see these expanded areas “as a plus,” said Higgins.

NOAA Fisheries reopened the comment period on Nov. 7 and has extended it 60 days until Jan. 6.

To submit comments electronically, go to and follow the instructions. Submit written comments to Regulatory Branch Chief, Protected Resources Division, National Marine Fisheries Service, Pacific Islands Regional Office, 1601 Kapiolani Blvd., Suite 1110, Honolulu, HI, 96814, Attn.: Hawaiian monk seal proposed critical habitat.

To view the Federal Register notice regarding reopening of the comment period, click here.

For further information about critical habitat, visit the Regional Office critical habitat website.

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