Four citizen groups, represented by Earthjustice, filed suit today against the St. Regis Princeville Resort over the luxury resort's failure to prevent the ongoing deaths of rare native seabirds, in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act. The St. Regis is a property of Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which also owns the Westin, Sheraton, Four Points by Sheraton, W Hotels, and Le Meridien brands.
Hui Ho'omalu i Ka 'Äina, Conservation Council for Hawai'i, the Center for Biological Diversity, and American Bird Conservancy filed a similar suit against Kaua'i Island Utility Cooperative in March. The groups are trying to protect the threatened Newell's shearwater ('a'o), whose population on Kaua'i declined by an alarming 75 percent in only 15 years (1993 to 2008), as well as the endangered Hawaiian petrel ('ua'u).
The resort is responsible for the greatest number of deaths and injuries of imperiled seabirds on Kaua'i due to artificial lights, while birds hitting KIUC's power lines is another significant cause of harm.
During the fledging season (from late September to early December), rare Newell's shearwaters and Hawaiian petrels heading to sea are attracted to bright lights in and around the St. Regis, which is situated on a coastal bluff in an otherwise dark part of Kaua'i's North Shore that is an important seabird flyway. Trapped in the lights' glare, the confused birds circle repeatedly until they fall to the ground from exhaustion or strike the resort's buildings.
Once Newell's shearwaters and Hawaiian petrels are grounded by light attraction, they are highly subject to predation by dogs, cats and other mammals, as well as to injury and death by vehicles, other human activity, or due to dehydration or starvation.
Data from the Save Our Shearwaters (SOS) program indicate that, from 2000 to 2008, over one-quarter of the total number of shearwaters downed by artificial lights on Kaua'i went down at that one resort. Figures for the 2009 fallout season show a similar trend, even though the St. Regis just completed a $100 million renovation that reportedly included some lighting changes.
"The renovations may have made the resort more posh, but they haven't stopped birds from getting killed and injured," said George Wallace of American Bird Conservancy. "These species are among our country's most imperiled birds. It is imperative that the threat of light attraction be dealt with."
During a 2009 tour, hotel representatives claimed that the resort had adopted several measures to protect the birds, including dimming interior lights and lowering polarizing window shades to minimize light visible from the exterior and keeping pool lights off. Unfortunately, only a week after those assurances were made, a site inspection on the night of October's new moon, when fledging seabirds are particularly vulnerable to the attraction of artificial lights, revealed that none of these measures was being implemented.
"A resort employee told me that, to improve the guest experience, they were under orders to keep the lights on and the shades up," said Maka'ala Kaaumoana of the Kaua'i-based Hui Ho'omalu i Ka 'Äina. "It's shocking that the St. Regis is putting its profits ahead of fulfilling its kuleana (duty) to stop killing our native seabirds."
SOS program data for the 2009 season show that over sixty imperiled seabirds came down at the resort this year. While many of those birds were later released by the SOS program, leading seabird experts question whether any significant numbers of those birds ultimately survive the ordeal.
"In the past thirty years, the SOS program has banded and released over 30,000 seabirds on Kaua'i, but almost none of those banded birds have ever been seen again," said Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who represents the groups. "The experts tell us we simply can't assume those birds survived."
Jeff Chandler of Hui Ho'omalu i Ka 'Äina said losing the birds would create a significant gap in Native Hawaiian culture.
"Since the 'a'o nest in the mountains and live at sea, they remind us that everything is connected," said Chandler, a Kaua'i fisherman. "We look to those birds to help us find fish, something we've been doing since ancient times."
"The Endangered Species Act requires the St. Regis to reduce the number of birds it kills and injures to the bare minimum, and also to offset any unavoidable harm, such as by protecting the birds' breeding colonies from predators such as pigs, rats and cats," explained Earthjustice attorney David Henkin. "We've asked the resort to live up to its legal obligations, but it refused to make any commitments, leaving us with no choice but to go to court."
"The resort is getting a free ride, profiting from Kaua'i's uniquely beautiful environment while, at the same time, harming its biodiversity," said Kaua'i resident and biologist Don Heacock, a member of Conservation Council for Hawai'i. "We need to put a stop to this kind of unsustainable development."
"We doubt the resort's high-end clientele would be happy to learn Kaua'i's seabirds are paying with their lives for the St. Regis experience," said Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity. "The resort is part of a multi-billion dollar hotel operation; it has no excuse for refusing to make the investments needed to save Kaua'i's seabirds."