The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world, numbering only about 1,300-1,400 individuals, most of which are found in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The species is in grave jeopardy of extinction. The largest breeding colony is found at French Frigate Shoals, and during the 1990s that colony has suffered a 55 percent decline because juvenile seals have been starving from lack of available prey. At the same time, the lobster fishery, after massive hauls during the 1980s, has become so depleted that even periodic closures have failed to revive the lobster stocks. NMFS had ignored calls by the Marine Mammal Commission to limit lobster fishing because of its impacts on the seals; it even allows the fishery to operate in the nearshore area designated as the seals' "critical habitat" under the ESA because of its importance to the species' survival. Earlier this year the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Team appointed by NMFS, as well as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, called for a moratorium on lobster fishing for the same reason.
Greenpeace Foundation, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Turtle Island Restoration Network, represented by Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, filed a lawsuit filed earlier this year charging that the lobster fishery was depriving the seals of food, and that NMFS was violating the Endangered Species Act by authorizing the fishery without adequate assessments of its impacts to the species and its designated critical habitat. Just before the lobster season was to open in July of this year, NMFS, to avoid a preliminary injunction, agreed to close the fishery for the 2000 season. Judge King has now ruled that NMFS has, indeed, been in violation of section 7 of the Endangered Species Act and NEPA by failing to assess the fishery's impacts. He ordered NMFS to keep the fishery closed indefinitely, until NMFS completes both an assessment of the fishery's impacts under the ESA, and an Environmental Impact Statement.
Judge King also ruled that NMFS has been violating section 9 of the Endangered Species Act by allowing the bottomfish fishery to hook seals, to feed the seals unwanted fish containing ciguatera toxin, and to operate without any observers despite evidence that monk seals have been bludgeoned by bottomfish fishermen. Judge King will hold another hearing to determine whether to shut down the bottomfish fishery. (The portion of the bottomfish fishery that operates in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and may be affected by the lawsuit is a small fraction of the Hawai'i bottomfish fishery; there are hundreds of bottomfish vessels fishing operating in the Main Hawaiian Islands, and only about a dozen in the NWHI.)
Todd Steiner, Turtle Island Restoration Network's director, noted: "The monk seals are running out of time, and this ruling comes none too soon. NMFS's kowtowing to industry at the seals' expense was totally unacceptable, and we're pleased that the court agreed."
Greenpeace Foundation president Sue White declared, "This is a wonderful victory for Hawai'i. Judge King's ruling is important beyond the immediate protection of these highly-endangered animals. By invoking the 'precautionary principle' he has set clear legal precedent that ignorance about impacts to an endangered species does not justify an assumption of 'no impacts'. Judge King has just made extinctions less likely." White, a former biologist who has known many monk seals as individuals, has worked with these enigmatic seals on O`ahu and the NWHI. "I have worked alongside fishermen in many fisheries," said White. "The fishing industry can alter its methods. The monk seal can't".
Paul Achitoff, the Earthjustice attorney handling the case, commented: "Once again, it has taken federal court intervention to force NMFS to shoulder its responsibilities to manage our fisheries responsibly and protect our natural heritage. NMFS has for many years stubbornly refused to take action while the monk seal approaches extinction. I'm particularly pleased that Judge King made it clear in his ruling that NMFS has a duty to get the necessary scientific information before it allows fisheries to operate."