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For Immediate Release, October 3, 2008


Miyoko Sakashita, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 845-6703
Kelly Ricaurte , Ocean Conservancy, (202) 351-0482
Marti Townsend, KAHEA, (808) 372-1314

Government Closer to Protecting Habitat for
Hawaiian Monk Seals in the Main Hawaiian Islands

SAN FRANCISCO— The federal government today will publish its finding outlining its intention to consider designating areas in the main Hawaiian Islands as critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals. The finding, to be published in the Federal Register, comes in response to a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, and Ocean Conservancy. The petition seeks to have beaches and surrounding waters on the main Hawaiian Islands protected as critical habitat under the Endangered Species Act for Hawaiian monk seals to help one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world avoid extinction.

The monk seal currently has critical habitat designated only in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a chain of small islands and atolls northwest of the main islands. In that northwestern area, monk seals are dying of starvation and populations of monk seals are plummeting. Seal pups have only about a one-in-five chance of surviving to adulthood. Other threats include becoming entangled and drowning in abandoned fishing gear, shark predation, and disease.

In contrast, monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands are thriving and giving birth to healthy pups. Hawaiian monk seals are present on each of the main islands, and their numbers are steadily increasing. Thus, the main islands are becoming important habitat for the monk seals.

“This government finding that it will consider designating critical habitat for monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands marks an important step toward preventing the extinction of the Hawaiian monk seal,” said Miyoko Sakashita, a staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the petition. “Habitat in the main Hawaiian Islands is essential for the survival of the imperiled monk seals.”

Habitat in the main islands will also provide a refuge for monk seals as sea-level rise floods the low-lying Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Global warming is an overarching threat to the Hawaiian monk seal and its habitat. Already, important beaches where seal pups are born and raised have been lost due to sea-level rise and erosion.

“We have already seen the extinction of the Caribbean monk seal – a relative of the Hawaiian monk seal. The threat is real and we must act now,” said Vicki Cornish, vice president of marine wildlife conservation at Ocean Conservancy.  “We are greatly encouraged by this consideration to extend critical habitat designation in the main Hawaiian Islands. It is a necessary step in making sure Hawaiian monk seals do not suffer the same fate as their relatives.”

Critical habitat designation will mean greater protection of Hawaiian monk seal habitat under the Endangered Species Act. Once designated, any federal activities that may affect the critical habitat must undergo review to ensure that those activities do not harm the Hawaiian monk seal or its habitat.

In passing the Endangered Species Act, Congress emphasized the importance of critical habitat, stating that “the ultimate effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act will depend on the designation of critical habitat.” Recent studies have shown that species with critical habitat are twice as likely to recover as species without it.

"What happens in the coming few years will determine the survival of this species,” said Marti Townsend, Program Director of KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance. “We cannot afford the extinction of a creature so sacred in Hawaiian culture and endemic to these islands. And we cannot expect to save this species without engaging in the hard task of meaningfully protecting habitat."

The Endangered Species Act requires that the government launch a detailed review on the habitat needs of the monk seal and, if warranted, propose a new critical habitat designation by the summer of 2009. The government will accept public comments on the issue for 60 days. A copy of the original petition is available at

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The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 180,000 members and online activists dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places.

 KAHEA is a community-based organization working to improve the quality of life for Hawai’i’s people and future generations through the revitalization and protection of Hawai’i’s unique natural and cultural resources. We advocate for the proper stewardship of our resources and for social responsibility by promoting multi-cultural understanding and environmental justice.

Ocean Conservancy is the world’s foremost advocate for the oceans. Through science-based advocacy, research, and public education, we inform, inspire and empower people to speak and act for the oceans. Ocean Conservancy is headquartered in Washington, D.C., and has offices in New England, Florida, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and California with support from more than half a million members and volunteers.

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