On September 12, I joined dozens of concerned citizens at a public hearing on the future of Hawaiian monk seal federal recovery actions, currently under review by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) fisheries service.

While I appreciate Civil Beat’s coverage of this issue of great concern to fishermen, environmental groups and anyone who enjoys our state’s natural resources, I would like to take this opportunity to clarify my testimony as the Vice-Chair of the Hawaii State House of Representatives Committee on Water, Land and Ocean Resources, which I believe was misconstrued by the headline “State Lawmakers Threaten to Fight Proposed Monk Seal Protections.”

As an attorney and a state representative, I understand that federal law will always supersede state law, and therefore, the state does not have the power to supplant any federal protections that may be put in place. Instead, I attended this meeting to ensure that the state of Hawai’i and the federal government collaborate on the important issue of protecting our endangered monk seal population, while balancing the impact upon our waters and other natural resources. Should NOAA decide upon new regulations to further intervene in the fate of the monk seals, the reality is that the state would be forced to bring many laws into line with the new federal protections, whether it be laws relating to aquatic resources, boating and ocean recreation, or shoreline issues. Therefore, it makes sense for the federal government and the state to work together on this issue.

Certainly, at the state level, we support efforts to protect Hawaiian monk seals, our state mammal. In fact, in 2010, the legislature increased the penalties for the intentional killing of a monk seal to make it a class C felony, with a fine of up to $50,000, via Act 165 (2010), legislation which I supported.

In order to protect these endangered animals, however, we believe that efforts should minimize human interaction in concurrence with the best available scientific research. Accordingly, the chairs of the Committee on Water, Land and Ocean Resources (House) and the Committee on Water, Land and Housing (Senate) submitted comments that support alternatives in the draft programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) that either allow permits to expire (freeing the monk seals from human intervention) or keep the status quo, meaning that only currently permitted activities (such as disentanglement or temporary markings) would be allowed to continue.

It is documented that alternatives which increase human intervention (including an option that goes so far as to translocate monk seals from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to the main Hawaiian Islands) may be actually counterproductive. According to a 1972 article by Kurt W. Kenyon, “Man Versus the Monk Seal,” human interaction has played a role in the decline of the monk seal population, so removing the monk seals from the unpopulated NWHI to the main Hawaiian islands would seem to work against survival of the species. Moreover, according to the impact analysis in the PEIS, the two alternatives favored by NOAA would increase human intervention and therefore increase the projected rate of mortality of the monk seal, as opposed to the two alternatives supported by the chairs of the House and Senate committees.

Ultimately, the state of Hawai’i understands that this area of environmental protection is by and large a federal issue, and we fully support the objective of protecting the monk seals. Given the potential impact on state issues, however, my fellow policymakers and I look forward to working with federal authorities, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, and other interested parties to find a solution that promotes the survival of our state’s monk seal population while balancing this interest with all of our state’s precious natural resources.

About the author: Rep. Sharon Har represents Hawaii’s 40th District, consisting of Kapolei, Makakilo, Royal Kunia and Kalaeloa, and is the Vice Chair of the Committee on Water, Land and Ocean Resources.

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