Hawaiian monk seals and local fishermen haven’t been getting along very well. And fishermen aren’t happy about a proposal to extend a conservation zone around the main Hawaiian islands to further protect the endangered species.

This was the message conveyed to representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration throughout two hours of heated testimony on Thursday at Ala Moana Beach Park.

More than 60 people turned out for the public hearing to discuss the proposal that would expand the critical habitat area for the seals, which have been protected under the Endangered Species Act since 1976. It is illegal to harass or kill the seals.

In the mid 1980s the federal agency designated areas around the Northwest Hawaiian Islands as critical habitat zones. The designation means that any activity that entails federal funding, federal permits or a federal action, must also be reviewed by NOAA’s Fisheries Services to ensure that it won’t adversely affect the monk seal population.

The current proposal would extend that critical habitat to areas around the main Hawaiian islands, extending 500 meters offshore. The federal proposal was triggered by three environmental groups — KAHEA, the Center for Biological Diversity and Ocean Conservancy — that brought a petition to the National Marine Fisheries Service to revise the critical habitat area.

“I think it’s pretty significant,” Marti Townsend, program director for KAHEA, told Civil Beat last week. “Critical habitat has shown to be a primary factor in the recovery of a species. It’s the first major policy decision that’s been made since the 1980s to really give this species a shot.”

If representatives from any of the three environmental groups were present at Thursday’s hearing, they did not speak up, causing anger among some fisherman.

The seal population has declined continuously since the 1950s, and is currently losing population at about 4 percent a year, according to NOAA. The current estimate for the Hawaiian monk seal population is 1,060 seals — 907 in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands and 153 in the main Hawaiian Islands.

Scientists have attributed the decline to a variety of factors, including: limited food resources due to more dominant predators, such as sharks; being eaten by sharks; entanglement in fishing gear and nets; and habitat loss due to rising sea levels affecting beaches.

But the plight of the monk seal hasn’t swayed many fishermen, if the testimony at the public hearing is any indication.

“They’re more of a nuisance than anything else right now,” said Brandon Hu. “I fish a lot at night. One of those seals started hiding under my boat. It takes fish from my lines, then my partner’s line. We’re losing fish left and right. We moved three miles down the coast. The monk seal started following us. They are already trained to be looking for our boats for a free handout.”

While only 153 monk seals are believed to be trolling the waters around the main Hawaiian islands, fishermen complained about the economic effects the seals were having on their fishing operations and their concern about the population growing.

The fishermen in attendance also raised concerns that fishing operations in federal waters would be impacted by the new requirements.

NOAA representatives didn’t respond to testimony or questions from the audience. But Lance Smith, a biologist at the federal agency said that he expected there to be little impact on fishing.

“Officially it will add another layer, but for fishermen there will probably be no restrictions,” said Smith. “But I can’t say for sure.”

Smith was vague about what activities the new conservation zone could impact. But he mentioned construction activities that could impact monks during the months they were nursing young, as well as large caged fishing operations and the proposed Honolulu Seawater Air Conditioning System that would draw up large quantities of deep ocean water onto shore through pipes.

But overall he said it wasn’t “a big additional layer.”

“It’s a little tiny layer to add additional protection,” said Smith.

Asked why the federal agency spent three years compiling hundreds of pages of reports and traveling throughout the islands to hold public meetings, he said, “We are being forced to by the petition.”

“We would not be doing this if we hadn’t received a petition from three environmental groups,” he added.

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