When Maui airport and harbor lights shine bright, three species of imperiled seabird chicks embarking on their inaugural flights are prone to lose track of the moonlight that guides them out to sea. Disoriented, the birds fall from the sky.

For feral cats, rats and mongoose, there’s no easier way to find dinner.

This week a pair of conservation groups announced their intent to sue the Hawaii Department of Transportation if it fails to take immediate steps to prevent bright lighting at state-operated airports and harbors on Maui and Lanai from injuring and killing threatened and endangered seabirds.

Earthjustice, an environmental law group, filed the notice on behalf of the Conservation Council for Hawaii and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The DOT’s airport and harbor facilities on Maui and Lanai are among the largest documented sources of seabird deaths from light attraction on these islands, according to conservationists. Since 2011, downed birds have been documented by researchers at Kahului Airport, Kahului Harbor and Lanai Airport from May through December. 

Newell’s shearwaters, called ‘a’o in Hawaiian, are threatened with extinction due to introduced species like cats and rats, habitat loss and bright artificial lights that disorient chicks navigating to sea by moonlight. Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

“These lights are tall, they’re exceptionally bright … and they’re a major threat to the continued survival and recovery of our threatened and endangered seabirds,” said Maxx Phillips, Hawaii Director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Conservationists aren’t asking for airports and harbors to go dark, necessarily, but to minimize the impact of these lights on vulnerable birds.

The burden is on the violator of the Endangered Species Act to propose mitigation measures, which might include dimming the lights, angling the lights in a new direction that helps shield glare or paying to fence in a seabird nesting colony to help protect the birds from falling prey to predators.

DOT spokeswoman Shelly Kunishige said the department is preparing a response to Earthjustice regarding their intent to sue. She declined further comment.

There is variation between species in their sensitivity to different colors of artificial light. But scientists have found that most wildlife, including Hawaii’s seabirds, tend to be more distracted by bluish light (left) than yellowish light (right). Courtesy: Jay Penniman/2021

The problem of artificial light blindsiding seabirds has contributed to the steep decline in the population of Hawaii’s threatened Newell’s shearwaters and its endangered Hawaiian petrels and band-rumped storm petrels.

When 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.

Once grounded by the glare of the light, these birds are vulnerable to starvation, dehydration, getting run over by cars and predation from invasive species. 

It’s not just a problem at airports and harbors.

In 2011, for example, Kauai high schools started moving football games scheduled during the seabirds’ three-month fledgling season to Saturday afternoons to avoid the risk of injury and death that stadium lights pose for the birds.

Although the risk of bright light disorientation persists year-round, it’s heightened during fledgling season, which starts in late September and ends in early December.

Hawaii’s largest petrel breeding colony is located on Maui in Haleakala crater. The second-largest breeding colony is on Lanai. 

A breeding colony of band-rumped storm petrels was recently discovered at Hauola Gulch on Lanai and is only the third such colony to be identified in the state, making it an important site for future efforts to protect and recover this species.

No one knows how many of these jeopardized seabirds still exist in Maui County, nor precisely how fast their populations have declined.  

But on Kauai, scientists have documented a 94% decline in the population of threatened Newell’s shearwaters since the 1990s. The population of Hawaiian petrels has plummeted by 78% in the same period.

“It only takes a few birds lost to really destabilize these populations that we’re trying to rebuild,” said Jay Penniman, director of the Maui Nui Seabird Project.

The conservation groups that announced their intent to sue claim the DOT has been violating the Endangered Species Act for years.

They say the department doesn’t have what’s known as an incidental take permit. Part of the permitting process would require the department to create a habitat conservation plan detailing what measures it will take to minimize and mitigate harm to the birds. Possible actions might include shielding or eliminating bright lights or fencing in seabird nesting colonies to prevent predation of endangered species.

In 2017, the Center and Conservation Council sued the DOT to stop the deaths of these seabirds at its facilities on Kauai. As a result, Kauai Island Utility Cooperative continues to work on installing devices on roadside utility lines to help protect endangered seabirds from striking lines while in flight.

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