BY ERIN MILLER | WEST HAWAII TODAY
Waters around the Big Island, and all the main Hawaiian Islands, would be redesignated as Hawaiian monk seal critical habitat under a revision to the Endangered Species Act.
The proposal specifies waters to the 500-meter depth contour as critical habitat for the endangered seal. The plan is mostly educational, created by one federal agency -- the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Fisheries Service -- to remind other federal agencies, particularly the Army Corps of Engineers, to keep the Hawaiian monk seal and its habitat in mind when considering development and other proposals for Hawaii's nearshore waters, Endangered Species Biologist Jean Higgins said.
If the proposal passes, it shouldn't change much for state residents, she added.
"It really shouldn't affect everyday beach use," Higgins said. "It really isn't that kind of action. ... It is kind of a check and balance for the federal government."
Higgins said she didn't even expect to see significant impact on development, because Hawaii already has a number of limitations in place via coastal zone management programs. Most developers in Hawaii should already be familiar with those procedures, she said.
"Only in rare circumstances we find it's going to cause a problem," she added.
The proposal will add another layer of protection to the seals' habitat in the islands.
A review team evaluated critical habitat to create the revisions, identifying essential features for Hawaiian monk seal habitat. According to a fishery bulletin issued Thursday, seals need room for "reproduction, rearing of offspring, foraging, resting and habitat protected from disturbance."
In addition to creating the critical habitat area around the Big Island, similar designations will be created around Kaula Island, Niihau, Kauai, Oahu, Maui, Kahoolawe, Lanai and Molokai. The critical habitat area around the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands would be extended to the 500-meter depth contour, and expanded to Sand Island at Midway Islands.
The Hawaiian monk seal was listed as endangered in 1976. Biologists estimate the Hawaiian monk seals population at 1,160.
According to the proposed rule revision, the seals are "wide-ranging, air-breathing aquatic carnivores that spend a majority of their time in the ocean, but continue to rely on terrestrial habitat."
Individual seals may travel hundreds of miles in a few days.
The proposal, which came as the result of a 2008 request to review the critical habitat designation, is up for review now. The public can view the 38-page proposal, published in Thursday's Federal Register, at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, www.fpir.noaa.gov, by clicking on "View the Federal Register Notice" under the News heading in the right column, about halfway down the page. The public may offer comments online, at regulations.gov, or by mailing or hand delivering written comments to Regulatory Branch Chief, Protected Resources Division, NMFS Pacific Islands Region, 1601 Kapiolani Blvd., Suite 1110 Honolulu, HI 96814. Mark those submissions "Attn: Proposed Critical Habitat Revision for the Hawaiian monk seal."