Four citizen groups today advised Princeville Resort their intent sue over luxury resort’s failure to prevent ongoing deaths rare native seabirds, in violation of federal Endangered Species Act. The St. Regis is owned Starwood Hotels Resorts, also owns the Westin, Four Points by Sheraton, W Hotels, and Le Meridien brands.
Hui Ho’omalu i Ka ‘Āina, Conservation Council for Hawai’i, the Center for Biological Diversity and American Bird Conservancy, represented by Earthjustice, sent a notice to the hotel saying it would file a lawsuit if the problems aren’t addressed. The groups sent a similar notice to the Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative (KIUC) on January 20.
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 mortality.
During the fledging season (from late September to early December), critically imperiled Newell’s shearwaters (‘a’o) and Hawaiian petrels (‘ua’u) heading to sea are attracted to bright lights in and around the resort, 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.
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.
"Whatever they’ve done certainly has not resolved the problem," said Peter Galvin of the Center for Biological Diversity. "It appears the resort’s renovation served only its high-end clientele, not the birds."
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.
"I asked a resort employee why nothing was being done for the birds and was told 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 ‘Āina. "It’s outrageous that, even when they know the community is watching, the resort so blatantly ignores its kuleana (duty) to stop killing our native seabirds."
"Starwood knew about this problem when it purchased the resort," said American Bird Conservancy’s George Wallace. "It’s a multi-billion dollar corporation. It easily could take common-sense steps to protect the birds, such as installing motion detectors to keep outside lights from burning all night while its guests are asleep, and repainting its brightly colored buildings in darker tones to be less reflective. Instead, it has taken only token measures that are ineffective."
SOS program data for the 2009 season show that over sixty imperiled seabirds came down at the resort this year.
"The Newell’s population has crashed by 75 percent in only the past fifteen years," said Kaua’i resident and biologist Don Heacock, a member of Conservation Council for Hawai’i. "It can’t afford to keep taking these major hits, suffering this high mortality, year after year. We need to be promoting sustainable development on Kaua’i."
Jeff Chandler of Hui Ho’omalu i Ka ‘Āina 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."
Earthjustice attorney David Henkin, who represents the groups, said the St. Regis has failed to seek an incidental take permit, as required by law, claiming that it is waiting for the State of Hawai’i’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife to prepare an island-wide plan, which is not expected to be completed for another two years.
"As a multi-billion dollar corporation that is single-handedly responsible for a quarter of the bird deaths, Starwood should not be asking Hawai’i’s taxpayers to foot the bill for coming up with a plan for the St. Regis," Henkin said.
Henkin said the St. Regis should apply for its own permit, which would require implementing effective measures to reduce the number of seabirds the resort kills each year, as well as efforts to offset unavoidable harm by helping to protect seabird nesting colonies from predators such as pigs, rats and cats.
"Unfortunately, in the absence of any enforcement by the state or federal governments, St. Regis has had no incentive to comply with the law, because the cost of non-compliance has been zero," Henkin said.
A similar situation has also driven the groups’ legal action against KIUC.
"Doing nothing risks pushing Kaua’i’s seabirds to extinction," Henkin explained. "We’re sending a strong message that business as usual is no longer acceptable."