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For Immediate Release, June 11, 2009


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

New Habitat Protections Could Bring Endangered Hawaiian Monk Seals Back
From the Brink of Extinction

SAN FRANCISCO— The federal government will designate critical habitat for endangered Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands and expand protected habitat in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Its finding, to be published in tomorrow’s Federal Register, comes in response to a petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, and Ocean Conservancy. The Hawaiian monk seal is among the most endangered marine mammals in the world, with a population of approximately 1,200. According to the finding, protection of beach habitat that supports resting, birthing, and raising pups, and marine habitat for foraging is essential for the conservation of the monk seals.

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 the 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 in better condition and giving birth to healthy pups. Hawaiian monk seals are present on each of the main islands, and their numbers are slowly increasing. Thus, the main islands are becoming important habitat for the monk seals.

“Hawaiian monk seals are teetering on the edge of extinction in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and the forces are against them with rising sea levels flooding their beaches, derelict fishing gear entangling them, and foraging grounds running dry,” said Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Today’s decision to expand critical habitat protection to the main Hawaiian Islands is essential to allow monk seals a chance for recovery.”

The main islands provide better monk-seal foraging conditions because there are fewer seals and less competition for prey. Monk seals prefer small eels, wrasses, and other prey not commonly sought by fishermen. Additionally, habitat in the main islands will provide a refuge for monk seals as important beaches where seal pups are born and raised have been lost due to sea-level rise and erosion.

“The steep decline of monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is a reminder to us all of how we must support the health of the ocean – our planet's life support system. We applaud the National Marine Fisheries Service for this positive step forward in recognizing the need for expanded critical habitat in both the Northwestern and Main Hawaiian Islands, as it will give this species a fighting chance,” said Vicki Cornish, wildlife policy director at Ocean Conservancy. “When we protect critical habitat for monk seals, we are also protecting the larger ocean ecosystem on which we all depend.”

Critical habitat designation will mean greater protection of Hawaiian monk seal habitat under the Endangered Species Act. Critical habitat protection does not close areas, but it does limit federal government activities that could harm monk seals or their habitat. Once designated, any federal activities that may affect the critical habitat must undergo review to ensure that those activities will not destroy or adversely modify the seal’s critical 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,” according to 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 the seals without meaningfully protecting critical habitat."

Next, the National Marine Fisheries Service will propose specific revisions to the Hawaiian monk seal’s critical habitat and solicit public comments.

More information about critical habitat, what it means, and a copy of the original petition are available at:


The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with more than 220,000 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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