Feds Greenlight Petition Favoring Turtle Hunts in Hawaii

U.S. federal fishery managers today took the first steps toward possibly allowing the hunting and eating of Hawaii’s beloved green sea turtles, known as the “honu,” by responding in favor of a formal petition from fishers and hunters who want to remove the threatened sea turtle species from U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections.

“Just imagine sitting on a Hawaii beach sipping a mai tai and watching a graceful green sea turtle slaughtered before your eyes,” said Todd Steiner, a biologist and Executive Director of SeaTurtles.org, an international ocean conservation group based in California. “Everybody loves the honu, so what does this do for tourism?”

National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced in today’s Federal Register that it will consider taking the threatened Hawaii green sea turtle off the endangered species list in response to the petition filed in February by the Hawaii Civic Association, which openly advocates hunting and eating of the honu. The public can comment on the proposal until October 1, 2012. Download the Federal Register Notice. Download the green sea turtle petition. Download the Hawaii resolution favoring honu hunting. Learn more about the Hawaii green sea turtle here.

Hawaii green sea turtle populations have increased steadily since their hunting was banned and given federal protections and listed as threatened under the ESA in 1978. However, the Hawaiian honus are far from reaching official government recovery goals of at least 5,000 nesters per year.

The average number of nesters at the honu’s primary nesting beach in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is 400 to 500 per year since 2002, with a high of 843 in 2011. Ninety percent of honus nest on French Frigate Shoals, while only a few nest on any of the main islands — where they mostly feed and swim.

“Hawaii’s honu numbers are growing, but have a long way to go before they reach the safety threshold for mother turtles,” said Teri Shore, Program Director at SeaTurtles.org. “A major factor in the survival of the honu is the serious impact climate change and rising sea levels will have on the nesting beaches and sea turtle life cycles in decades to come. Even when they reach nesting goals, hunting of these treasured sea turtles seems barbaric in this day and age. ”

As part of the delisting process, NMFS will decide whether the Hawaiian green sea turtle is a distinct sub-species of green sea turtle and conduct a status review to determine whether its population has grown large enough to ensure it won’t decline or go extinct due to a range of human threats including hunting, bycatch in fisheries and climate change if federal protections are removed. If delisted, the state of Hawaii would take over management of the green turtle and could allow hunting as other states have done for other delisted species such as wolves. The Hawaii Civic Assocation advocated for hunting in its petition to the government.

SeaTurtles.org opposes the delisting and hunting of the honu for the following reasons:
1. The Hawaiian green sea turtle has not met recovery goals under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
2. Threats to the survival and recovery of Hawaiian green sea turtles from human activities are increasing, not decreasing.
There are too many major threats to the long-term survival of the green sea turtle globally and in Hawai’i, including the loss of nesting beaches resulting from sea level rise, invasive algae, disease, capture in fishing gear, ingestion of and entanglement with marine debris, ocean acidification, and coral bleaching. These threats have not been eliminated nor mitigated in any significant way.
3. Hunting of green sea turtles led to their near-extinction and should not be allowed to resume.
Green sea turtles are now central to Hawaii’s tourism and provide huge economic benefits to the state by attracting, divers, snorkels, beachgoers and sea turtle loves to the islands.
4. Designation the Hawaii green sea turtles as its own sub-species of sea turtle may have merit and the growth of the species demonstrates the success of Endangered Species Act protections. Removing these protections could reverse decades of conservation.

In filing the petition to delist the honu, the Hawaii Civic Association received help from the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council’s Executive Director Kitty Simonds and other staff as well as paid sea turtle researchers who work for WESPAC. This is a clear conflict of interest as the fishery management council is the federal body that manages fisheries and is responsible for protecting endangered sea turtles, whales and other marine species from harm in commercial fisheries.