When the Waimea Menehune host the Kapaa Warriors this week at Hanapepe Stadium, it will mark the long-awaited return of Friday night lights to Kauai.
For years, the island’s three public high schools have all but eliminated night football games to protect an imperiled species of native seabird. When stadium lights shine bright, Newell’s shearwater chicks embarking on their inaugural flights are prone to lose track of the moonlight and fall from the sky.
For the island’s 20,000 feral cats, there’s no easier way to find dinner.
The problem for student athletes is that the birds develop wing feathers large enough for flight from Sept. 15 to Dec. 15, which overlaps with football season.
As a result, games scheduled during the seabirds’ three-month fledgling season have for the last seven years been played on Saturday afternoons.
Conservationists say the switch to daylight games has benefitted the birds. But football players, parents and spectators have lamented the brutal midday heat at game time, raising health and safety concerns. Many island residents have expressed outrage that the well being of student athletes appears to have been trumped by the birds.
Friday’s return to the night game tradition marks the first time that stadium lights will be used during the Newell’s shearwater fledgling season in almost seven years.
“We are ecstatic,” said Vanessa Cummings, whose 16-year-old son is a defensive lineman for the Kapaa High School football team. “With it being so hot nowadays, my son comes home from Saturday afternoon games with a headache and dehydration. Playing in the sun like that is so dangerous.”
Football fans aren’t the only ones cheering the return of the field lights. Joining in the celebration are wildlife lovers who watched and worried as the birds became a target of community frustration when the Friday night football games ceased.
“I guess my bigger concern was the negative PR that arose from this whole thing,” said Nicolai Barca, a conservationist who traps, snares and hunts feral pigs that pose a threat to Newell’s shearwater habitat. “Remember the ‘Buck the Firds’? People started to hate on imperiled wildlife. That concerned me. Hopefully all is forgiven now.”
Night games were halted on Kauai in 2010 when the U.S. Justice Department found the county in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act after it failed to retrofit stadium lights in county-owned parks with shields that curtail the threat to endangered seabirds.
A multi-million-dollar installation of shielded lights at parks and stadiums across Kauai has since been completed as part of an agreement between the county and the feds.
On Monday, Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. announced that the county has received permission from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use stadium lights at night on four dates during this year’s fledging season. In addition to Friday’s Waimea homecoming event, night games are scheduled Sept. 30, Oct. 7 and Nov. 4.
“It has always been our goal to establish an agreement with the federal government which allows us to reinstate night football games in a manner that is safe, responsible and follows our legal obligations,” said Carvalho, a former lineman for the Miami Dolphins pro football team.
The new shielded lights are only part of the solution. The approved game nights fall on dates during which the moon will be full or near-full. There is lower risk that stadium lights will contribute to the number of birds dropping from the sky when the moon is big and bright.
As part of an agreement with environmental regulators, the county will monitor the impact of these night games on the birds.
“Traditionally on Kauai the Friday night football games have been the main event,” said Bill Arakaki, Kauai’s superintendent of schools. “The opportunity to have more night games will really help us as far as this tradition of our culture where families get together and get to really participate with the school. But it’s not just about athletics, it is also about malama aina, taking care of our resources and the natural environment.”
When Newell’s shearwater chicks emerge from their burrows and make their first nocturnal flight, they navigate to sea by relying on moonlight. Artificial light can confuse the birds, causing them to collide with utility poles or buildings and fall from the sky.
People who find downed birds can place them in wooden “cubbies” located outside Kauai fire stations. The birds are transported to veterinarians for treatment. An average of 150 birds are rescued in this way each fledging season, with a recovery rate of about 90 percent.
Once found in abundance throughout the Hawaiian Islands, the Newell’s shearwater population now exists almost exclusively in the mountains of Kauai.
In recent decades, efforts to educate the public about the importance of dimming nonessential lights, combined with a steady decline in the Newell’s shearwater population, has greatly reduced the number of downed bird rescues. There used to be hundreds of birds in a night, or thousands over an entire fledgling season.
Kauai Seabird Habitat Conservation Program Coordinator Yuki Reiss said she is working with county officials to solidify a long-term habitat conservation plan that would dictate, based on the lunar cycle, the dates on which night football games will be permitted for the next 30 years.
The plan would also require the county to contribute funds for a predator-proof fence to enclose a portion of Newell’s shearwater nesting habitat along the Kalalau Rim. That plan is on track for completion in the spring.
“We need to find a way to have night football, which is what people really want, but do it in a way that’s low-risk to the species,” Reiss said. “There’s a lot of pitting birds against people, and that doesn’t seem like a very effective way to conserve what we have here in terms of bird conservation in the Hawaiian Islands. Finding a compromise like this is a win-win for everybody.”