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Kauai Concerns Over Monk Seal Relocation

Will a federal plan to save monk seals disrupt life in the Main Hawaiian Islands?  Some Kauai residents believe it may.

Supporters and opponents of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Program (HMSRP) recently had a chance to have their say.  The National Marine Fisheries Service held meetings in Hanalei and Hanapepe, where HMSRP had the opportunity to present the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) to the public.

Environmental groups and Native Hawaiians have often collaborated on projects in the past.  But now the issue of monk seals may cause divisions rather than create connections.  When the PEIS was presented on Maui a week prior to the Kauai meetings, an activist and Maui resident expressed his concern that, “No Native Hawaiian organizations were consulted in the development of this PEIS”.  And some - fishermen in particular – are not impressed by this lack of consideration for the Native people who depend on the land and sea for sustenance.  If female monk seals and pups are temporarily relocated to the Main Hawaiian Islands, they may disrupt the natural environment.  In addition, if critical habitats are expanded, some worry that fishing areas may be off-limits, even to locals.

Residents of Kauai in attendance at the Hanalei and Hanapepe meetings echoed the concerns expressed at the Maui meeting.  One angler wants to have the opportunity to pass his knowledge on to his grandchildren, but fears that relocation of the seals and expansion of the critical habitats may prevent him from doing so.

Presenters assured fishermen that restricting pubic access or increasing regulations on fishing is not part of the plan.  The designation of critical habitats would place regulations on federal agencies, not citizens.

Acknowledging the problem of starvation that monk seals face, another attendee recommended that NOAA feed them, rather than relocate them.  The HMSRP lead scientist, Charles Littnan, explained that, as Hawaiian monk seals are typically loners – unlike Arctic seals that spend more time in groups – it is difficult to track and feed monk seals that may be starving.  Littnan also explained that removing monk seal predators or otherwise changing their current ecosystem could have negative, long-term consequences.  He reminded residents that this project is not being taken lightly and has in no way been developed hastily, as decades of research, experience, and scientific analysis have been poured into it.

Branch chief of National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Mammals Program, Jeff Walters, has stated that if the fishing industry can bring solid, firsthand evidence to support their claims, he will adjust the impact statement.  But for now, it remains as is.

Kauai residents will have another chance to share their concerns by giving testimony at a public hearing to be held, September 17th, at Wilcox Elementary School in Lihue.


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