The federal government expanded the critical habitat for Hawaiian monk seals by 7,000 square miles Tuesday, a move aimed at preventing the declining species from going extinct.

Environmental groups petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2008 to change its rule, which at the time did not include key areas around the main Hawaiian Islands. The designated areas to help the seals recover were in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands more than 1,000 miles northwest of Kauai.

The feds’ update this week to their 1986 rule comes as the total Hawaiian monk seal population has fallen to 1,100 — only 200 of which live in the main Hawaiian Islands.

Monk Seal

Hawaiian monk seals, like the one pictured here, now have 7,000 additional square miles of federally designated critical habitat area.

NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center

“In the seven years since we filed the petition to designate critical habitat around the main Hawaiian Islands, there has been a lot of critical discussion about how to use environmental regulations to care for Hawaii’s wildlife and coastal resources,” said Bianca Isaki of KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.

“We appreciate that discussion and, although we had hoped it would be more comprehensive, we’re glad to see the final rule,” she said.

KAHEA was one of nine Hawaii and national organizations that jointly issued a news release Tuesday.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources said in a statement that it’s pleased the feds incorporated the state’s input into the rules by focusing on areas most important for foraging, pupping and resting.

“Hawaii has a responsibility to protect our natural and cultural heritage,” DLNR Chair Suzanne Case said. “A part of that is making sure that our very special, unique, native Hawaiian monk seals have safe places to thrive. It is a shared responsibility among the people, the state and the federal government.”

The species has been listed as endangered since 1976. Conservation efforts have slowed the decline to 3 percent annually but scientists, nonprofits and others said more needs to be done to save the seals.

“People can still swim, surf, snorkel, fish and gather.” — Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of Conservation Council for Hawaii

The NMFS decision to expand the critical habitat area comes one week after the feds released a draft management plan for Hawaiian monk seals.

The draft plan involves growing the population of seals in the main Hawaiian Islands to 500, more than double what it is today, by ensuring sufficient shoreline and ocean areas are available for them to eat and breed.

That’s where the new critical habitat area comes into play. The designation — which includes areas around Oahu, Maui, Kauai, Niihau and Big Island — doesn’t prevent public access, but it does require a more thoughtful approach to development.

“People can still swim, surf, snorkel, fish and gather,” Marjorie Ziegler, executive director of Conservation Council for Hawaii, said in the release.

Monk Seal Critical Habitat Oahu

Here’s the critical habitat area for Hawaiian monk seals around Oahu.

“Critical habitat merely identifies the areas where federal government projects must give extra consideration and minimize destruction and degradation of the coast, something that beach- and ocean-loving Hawaiians would want anyway,” the groups said in the release.

Marine water protections have also been tailored to include the key foraging depths on the sea floor, rather than all surface waters, according to the DLNR. The activities most likely to require some modifications include dredging, coastal construction, water pollution permits, and military activities.

“We look forward to enhanced state and federal co-management of monk seals throughout Hawaii,” Case said. “Critical habitat helps manage federal activities to avoid habitat destruction. Most fishermen and other ocean users will never even notice this rule has been implemented. Critical habitat designation is an important tool in the larger effort to recover this valued native species, found nowhere else in the world.”

Four areas were excluded from the initial proposal because national security benefits outweighed the benefits of inclusion, and the feds determined the exclusion would not result in extinction of the species.

Those areas are the Kingfisher Underwater Training area off of Niihau, the Pacific Missile Range Facility Offshore Areas off of Kauai, the Puuloa Underwater Training off of Oahu and the Shallow Water Minefield Sonar Training Range off of Kahoolawe.

Mike Gravitz, director of policy for the Marine Conservation Institute and leader of its monk seal program, said preventing monk seals from going extinct “is not rocket science.”

“The seals in the main Hawaiian Islands need critical habitat, NOAA has to be serious about implementing its own recovery plan, and we need to work with the communities and fishers in Hawaii to listen to their concerns and reduce any conflicts with the seals,” he said in the release. “If we lose the battle to save the Hawaiian monk seal, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.”

The DLNR highlighted a 2013 study estimating that monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands consume less than .01 percent of the ocean biomass, according to the release.

The Legislature unanimously passed a resolution last session that directs the DLNR to strengthen its rules governing the protection of indigenous marine wildlife — including spinner dolphins, marine mammals and sea turtles — and to increase collaboration with federal partners.

The DLNR also underscored that it is a felony under both state and federal law to kill a monk seal. Five monk seal killings have occurred since 2011, three on Kauai and two on Molokai. Rewards of up to $10,000 for each incident remain for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible. Anyone with information on these killings is asked to call the toll-free DLNR tipline at 1-855-DLNR-TIP.

Read the feds’ 219-page rule, which includes maps of all the newly protected areas, below.

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