Background: Petition Filed to Remove Hawai'i Green Sea Turtles from Federal Protection!



July 2012

A misguided attempt is underway to remove the Federal protections for Hawaii's green sea turtles.  Known commonly by their Hawaiian name, “honu”, the Hawaiian green sea turtle represents an important cultural and biological component of Hawaii’s ecosystems.  Spurred by the specie’s overexploitation for commercial and other purposes, the honu was listed as “Threatened” under the Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) in 1978.  Over the past 30 years, scientists have engaged in numerous population counts and monitoring activities related to the honu’s recovery, and have, in fact, noted a population increase. 

Yet because large sea turtle population declines occurred centuries ago, we lack a proper perspective or reliable baseline against which to compare their current state – a phenomena known as “shifting baseline syndrome”.  It is therefore reasonable to assume that because of the lack of historic information, we have forgotten the past ecological functions of sea turtles during periods of great abundance1.

While signs of recovery are thus encouraging, and are no doubt related to the protections conferred by the Endangered Species Act, it should be kept in mind that science has yet to verify if the Hawaiian green sea turtle’s current population (estimated between 600 – 800 nesting females) is sustainable, whether all major threats to long-term population recovery have been eliminated or controlled, and whether critical turtle habitat quality and quantity is stable.

These days, it’s rare to spend time in or near Hawaii’s marine ecosystems and not see honu.  Common along rocky shores and reefs, where they are feeding on algae or resting on the bottom, honu play a vital role in maintaining the overall health and integrity of Hawaii’s near shore habitats.  As vegetarians, honu are responsible for keeping algal growth in check, an important process that ensures corals are not smothered by overgrowth or suffer from a lack of sunlight.

Despite the indisputable cultural and biological significance of these animals, Hawaii’s commercial longline fishing industry is among those instigating the species removal from the endangered species list.  These measures came to a shocking head on February 14, 2012, when the Association of Hawai’i Civic Clubs (AOHCC) filed a petition against the U.S. government, seeking to de-list the Hawaiian green sea turtle.  While the AOHCC claims to be guided by the values of kuleana (responsibility) and‘ike (to seek knowledge; to be informed), others describe the group’s actions as “a front … for Kitty Simonds of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council” – a Federal organization whose interests are intimately tied to those of – you guessed it – the commercial longline fishing industry. 

In April of this year, the Hawai’i state legislature successfully turned down two resolutions (H.C.R. 87 and H.R. 61) supporting AOHCC’s petition.  The resolutions, claiming that “the environment and ecosystem are suffering from the current over-protection, over-population, and lack of management of honu”, were opposed by over 140 testimonies from local and international conservation groups, concerned citizens, and scientists. 

Pacific Whale Foundation was one such group who submitted testimony opposing the resolutions, citing the fact that there is “no valid scientific evidence” that honu populations are threatening reef ecosystems.  National Marine Fisheries Service further reasoned that “sea turtles are part of the ecosystem”, and reiterated the lack of information to support the claims thathonu are detrimental to the environment.  

In a more recent interview with Hawai’i Public Radio, PWF’s Conservation Manager Lauren Campbell pointed out that de-listing is not a bad thing when it is warranted – that is the whole point of the Endangered Species Act – but that the process of de-listing should follow a strict, scientific protocol.

AOHCC further argues that honu management should come under the jurisdiction of the state of Hawai’i, due to its importance and usage in native Hawaiian culture.  You would hard-pressed, however, to find evidence of large-scale subsistence hunting of honu in the Hawaiian Islands.  In fact, it is much more common to come across instances of honu as ‘aumakua – family gods or deified ancestors of native Hawaiian families. 

Unfortunately for honu, the AOHCC petition still remains at large, with a decision to consider the petition by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service expected any day.  The petition specifically asks for two things:

           1. First define Hawaii green sea turtle as a distinct population segment – separate from other populations of the same species

2.   Allow state to determine how many turtles are hunted, captured, or taken each year (by de-listing honu from Federal Endangered Species List)

For more than 100 million years, sea turtles have dutifully played their role in maintaining the health of oceans worldwide.  Most recently Pacific Whale Foundation has sent a letter of testimony to National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, declaring our opposition to any delisting decision that fails to meet rigorous scientific standards, protocols and investigations.    

YOU can also help save Hawaii's Green Sea Turtles by CLICKING HERE and signing our petition that says you, too, support the continued protection of the Hawaiian population of green sea turtle, and oppose any delisting decision that fails to meet rigorous scientific standards, protocols and investigations. 





1See the report published by Oceana entitled “Why Healthy Oceans Need Sea Turtles”