Environmental Groups Sue Maui Grand Wailea Resort for Lights That Harm Endangered Seabirds

Despite prior warnings, bright lights at luxury resort continue to injure Hawaiian seabirds that breed nowhere else on the planet


Leināʻala Ley, Earthjustice, (808) 599-2438, lley@earthjustice.org

Maxx Phillips, Center for Biological Diversity, (808) 284-0007, mphillips@biologicaldiversity.org

Moana Bjur, Conservation Council for Hawai‘i, (808) 492-2387, moana@conservehi.org

Conservation groups in Hawai‘i represented by Earthjustice filed a lawsuit today against Maui’s Grand Wailea Resort for its bright lights that attract Hawaiian petrels, frequently leading to their grounding and death.

For more than a decade, bright lights at the Grand Wailea have disoriented the endangered seabirds as they navigate between breeding colonies and the ocean. Last year the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i and Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter of intent to sue the Grand Wailea, warning that the resort’s light harm Hawaiian petrels in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Although the resort modified some lights in response to the letter, a grounded fledgling was recovered during the 2021 fallout season, indicating ongoing harm to the species. There are straightforward fixes available to the resort to limit the impact of its lights and prevent grounding of birds that are then vulnerable to injury and death.

“The Grand Wailea knows that its lights are harming imperiled seabirds on Maui. This isn’t rocket science — there are pragmatic, straightforward solutions the resort could — and, by law, should — be pursuing,” said Leinā‘ala Ley, an attorney in Earthjustice’s Mid-Pacific Office. “We’re taking the Grand Wailea to court to ensure the resort becomes a responsible neighbor, rather than watch native birds like the Hawaiian petrel disappear.”

“Conservation Council for Hawai‘i commends Grand Wailea’s management for taking some initial steps to protect seabirds during last year’s fallout season,” said Moana Bjur, executive director at Conservation Council for Hawai‘i. “Unfortunately, fallout continued in 2021, highlighting the urgent need for comprehensive modifications at the resort. It is our hope that we can come to a settlement with the Grand Wailea before the next fledging season begins in September. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is about to declare that eight native Hawaiian birds are now officially extinct. We need to do everything we can to prevent the Hawaiian petrel from being added to that list.”

“The Grand Wailea has been killing our precious Hawaiian petrels for too long. The half steps they took in 2021 are just not enough,” said Maxx Phillips, Hawai‘i director and staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “It shouldn’t take a lawsuit to force the resort to make sensible changes to prevent killing these incredible native seabirds. The Grand Wailea could easily be a partner in the recovery of these vulnerable birds and not a factor in speeding their extinction.”

The ‘ua‘u, or Hawaiian petrel (Pterodroma sandwichensis), is a federally endangered native seabird that travels thousands of miles across the Pacific to forage for squid and other marine life. During nesting season, when the birds return to Hawai‘i to mate and lay eggs, young adults can be heard making a distinctive, nocturnal “oo-ah-oo” call as they ride along coastal updrafts. Hawai‘i is the only place on Earth where the ‘ua‘u breeds.

In October and November, after several months of gaining weight and strengthening their wings, young ‘ua‘u leave their nests for the first time, departing after dark to locate the ocean. Once chicks leave the nest, they won’t return to land for up to six years, when they’ll navigate back to their hatching site to breed. The largest ‘ua‘u nesting colony in the islands occurs on the volcanic slips of Haleakalā, where the birds dig burrows in the rocky soil.

Hawaiian petrels use the moon and stars to navigate and are often distracted by artificial lights on their way out to sea. Disoriented birds will circle artificial lights until they fall to the ground from exhaustion or strike other human-made structures. Once grounded, it is difficult for ‘ua‘u to take flight, leaving them extremely vulnerable to predators, starvation, and being run over by vehicles.

While there are multiple sources of bright light on Maui, the Grand Wailea’s 40-acre property stands out among all hotels on the island as being particularly harmful to Hawaiian petrels. Since 2008 the Maui Nui Seabird Recovery Project has documented unauthorized harming or killing of Hawaiian petrels at the Grand Wailea an average of once per year, but the documented harm represents only the tip of the iceberg; many grounded seabirds are eaten by predators such as cats and mongoose prior to being recovered.

Other resorts and hotels in Hawai‘i have implemented responsible plans to protect imperiled seabirds from harmful lighting. On Kaua‘i, hotels like the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay (formerly the St. Regis) have embraced wildlife-friendly measures like shuttering windows and doors at night during fledgling season, keeping fountain lights off during fledgling season, shielding floodlights, and implementing a search-and-rescue plan for downed seabirds. Across Hawai‘i, infrastructure such as street lights and power lines must be modernized to protect native wildlife like seabirds and sea turtles.

A Hawaiian petrel chick in its burrow.
A Hawaiian petrel chick in its burrow. (Andre Raine / U.S. FWS)

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