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NOAA Seeks Community Monk Seal Feedback

With only a little more than 1,000 left in the world, the Hawaiian monk seal is one of the rarest marine mammals. Studies have shown that there are approximately 200 seals living on or around the Main Hawaiian Islands, with about 40 on Molokai. Even though their numbers are dwindling, their presence has caused conflict with divers and fishermen near shore, some of whom believe the seals are competing with them for fish. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries aims to not only protect endangered species like the Hawaiian monk seal, but also to conduct research in hopes of furthering understanding in communities in which they live.

“Before conducting any actions in any moku or ahupua`a, we want to develop relationships in and consult with the local kiole and practitioners to make sure we’re avoiding and protecting the specific cultural resources and properties in that area,” said NOAA’s Rachel Sprague at a community meeting hosted on Molokai last week.

Actions would include monitoring seals from the shoreline by NOAA personnel; handling the seals to capture, restrain, vaccinate or tag; and the transporting of seals from one place to another if necessary. Though they do not anticipate their actions having too much of a negative impact along the shorelines, Sprague said it is important to know if there are culturally or historically-sensitive areas they should avoid or approach with caution.

“The community knows the island better than anyone else does,” said Paul Cleghorn, principal and senior archaeologist for Pacific Legacy Historic Preservation. “We want to figure out what sorts of things we might impact in terms of historical properties or archeological resources as well as traditional practices or activities taking place.”

When NOAA scientists travelled across the state last year to gather comments for a draft Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS), many voices in the community suggested they obtain more feedback from the residents, especially when it came to potential historical and cultural properties. The meeting held last week was an attempt to gather additional mana`o, but no one attended. Still, Sprague said that she will talk to Native Hawaiian organizations like the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to ask for any comments or suggestions they may have.

NOAA is in the process of obtaining a new Endangered Species Act permit, which would allow researchers to continue their work with monk seals along Hawaiian shorelines. In order to obtain that permit, they need to comply with both the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act, which require any federal agency to consider the effects of their actions and also to propose mitigations if they anticipate any negative effects.

NOAA needs help from the community in identifying any historic or cultural properties that may be affected. To submit comments, email statement to cleghorn@pacificlegacy.com or Rachel.sprague@noaa.gov.


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