Former Gov. Linda Lingle said Tuesday a federal proposal to designate areas on and around the main Hawaiian Islands as critical habitat for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal is insensitive and an example of "government overreach."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently proposed designating areas on and around Hawaii’s most developed islands — and not just in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — as protected areas for the species. It was in response to a petition filed by environmental groups in 2008.
Lingle in a statement said she supports protecting endangered species, but she wants the government to postpone action until the "economic and social consequences to the people are fully understood and addressed." The former two-term Republican governor announced in October that she is running for U.S. Senate.
The proposed designation would cover 4,787 square miles — nearly 75 percent of the size of the state, she said.
Lingle is concerned about the "potential adverse impacts this rule could have on such important activities as clean energy projects (such as wave energy, ocean-thermal energy and seawater air conditioning), aquaculture, fishing, military activities, harbor improvements and near-shore construction (including airports modernization and highway reconstruction)."
The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register, which Lingle said isn’t widely read. "They gave the public only 60 days to respond to a proposed rule that could last for over 50 years," she said. "Only after receiving letters from elected officials who were alerted by concerned fishermen, native Hawaiian groups and community activists did NOAA agree to re-open the public comment period."
The comment period on the plan has been reopened for 60 days from Nov. 7 to Jan. 6.
"NOAA Fisheries appreciates Ms. Lingle bringing attention to the topic of critical habitat designation and looks forward to receiving comments from anyone wishing to do," NOAA said in a statement Tuesday.
Jeff Walters, NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator, has said the agency is required by law to make the proposal if a petition has merit and is sound from a biological perspective. Hawaiian monk seals are already protected under the endangered species act, so the habitat is just another layer of protection.
Lingle noted that the monk seal population has been declining in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where the critical habitat designation has been in place for 20 years, but the population has increased in the main Hawaiian Islands without a habitat designation.
That population has given birth to more pups, although it did not necessarily indicate the species was thriving. The overall population of less than 1,200 animals was shrinking at a rate of 4 percent per year, primarily because the survival rate for the species in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — where they are most numerous — is abysmally low.
Developing juvenile seals in the remote atolls of the northwest are having trouble competing with large predators, like sharks and ulua, or jacks, for food. In contrast, juveniles in the main Hawaiian Islands, where there are fewer sharks and ulua, are able to find plenty of food.
That makes it more important for the government to protect beaches and waters in the main Hawaiian Islands where the seals forage, rest on the sand and give birth to pups, conservationists say.