June 12, 2009

Hawaiian Islands Expand Habitat For Endangered Monk Seal

The federal government is set to make a substantial expansion of the critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals to include beaches and waters of the main Hawaiian Islands on Friday.

Environmentalists are saying that the addition is a necessity for ending the crisis of the monk seals. The monk seal is known to the native Hawaiians as "dog that runs through rough waters", however its name is derived from its round head covered with short hairs resembling a medieval friar. The monk seal is now among the most endangered marine mammals in the world with fewer than 1,200 remaining.

The critical habitat was previously confined to the remote and largely uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where it was first established in 1986.

The broader designated space will provide greater protection of seal habitat under the Endangered Species Act. It does not have any affect on or restrict access to Hawaii's beaches or fishing, however the designation will put a constraint on federal government activities, which must be reviewed to safeguard both the seal and its habitat against any possible harm or damage.

This announcement will be published Friday in the Federal Register as the result of a petition that was filed a year ago by the Center for Biological Diversity, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, and Ocean Conservancy.

Vicki Cornish, wildlife policy director at Ocean Conservancy said, "It will give this species a fighting chance"¦when we protect critical habitat for monk seals, we are also protecting the larger ocean ecosystem on which we all depend."

Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, says the seals are "teetering on the edge of extinction ... and the forces are against them with rising sea levels flooding their beaches, derelict fishing gear entangling them and foraging grounds running dry."

She claims the expanded protection is "essential" in recovering from endangerment.

Environmental groups point to the Caribbean monk seal as proof of what could be the future of their Hawaiian relatives if no action is taken.

A year ago, the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service officially declared the Caribbean monk seals as extinct. The seals had once maintained a population of more than 250,000, but they were easy to hunt because they were often resting, giving birth or nursing their pups on the beaches. The last confirmed sighting was in 1952.

The Hawaiian monk seal population is steadily declining at a rate of about 4% yearly, according to NOAA. The agency predicts the population falling below 1,000 within three or four years.

When the numbers of any species fall to such small numbers, they experience increased instability and are subject to threats like disease.

Marti Townsend, KAHEA's program director said, "We cannot afford the extinction of a creature so sacred in Hawaiian culture and endemic to these islands"¦and we cannot expect to save the seals without meaningfully protecting critical habitat."


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