Turtles Face Premature Loss of Protections and Return of Hunting

HONOLULU – More than 100,000 people are opposing a proposal to strip Endangered Species Act protections from the iconic Hawaiian green sea turtle (or “honu” in Hawaiian). Monday was the final day for the public to comment on the National Marine Fisheries Service’s proposal to take the turtles off the list of protected species. The step would allow the turtles to be hunted again. Hunting was a key factor that drove the turtles to the brink of extinction prior to Endangered Species Act protections.

The proposal to remove federal protections from the Hawaiian green sea turtle came in response to a petition by the Association of Hawaii Civic Clubs filed earlier this year.  An estimated 126,000 people wrote letters or signed petitions opposing delisting. A Change.org petition partnered with SeaTurtles.org generated 119,000 signatures opposing ESA delisting and hunting of Hawaiian green sea turtles.

Conservation and animal protection groups are also speaking out to keep federal protections for Hawaii’s green sea turtles.  SeaTurtles.org, Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), Center for Biological Diversity (the Center), Conservation Council for Hawaii (CCH), For the Fishes (FTF) and Earthjustice oppose the ESA delisting of the Hawaiian green sea turtle because it is premature and sea turtles face continued threats to their existence.

“The number of Hawaiian green turtles is growing, but they have a long way to go before the population of nesting females is big enough to ensure their long-term survival,” said Teri Shore, Program Director at SeaTurtles.org.  “A major threat to 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 if Hawai’i’s green sea turtles reach nesting goals, legal hunting could threaten their long-term survival.”

Unfortunately and despite current, long-standing protections under existing state and federal law, illegal killing of sea turtles continues to occur across Hawaii.

“If protections are removed for these species, we must think of the negative ramifications this has, not only on the species itself, but on visitors and residents,” said Inga Gibson, Hawaii state director for The Humane Society of the United States. “We are committed to working together to stop these wildlife crimes and will continue our work to protect Hawaii’s precious wildlife. If sea turtles are being killed when protected under current state and federal law, how are we supposed to protect them when their legal status and protections are removed as would occur under the proposed delisting?”

Hawaiian green sea turtle populations have increased steadily since their hunting was banned and they were given federal protections and listed as threatened under the ESA in 1978. However, the Hawaiian honu is far from reaching the official government recovery goal of at least 5,000 nesters per year.  Today, the population is only at about 10 percent of that goal, with an average around 390 nesting females per year between 2000-2009 in the Hawaiian archipelago, with a high of 843 in 2011.

“It’s far too soon to take away the protections that just recently helped  Hawai’i’s green sea turtle  come  back from the brink of extinction,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We’re lucky to have green sea turtles coming back in Hawaii, but they face continuing threats to their existence, and they need the Endangered Species Act.”

As part of the delisting proposal, NMFS also sought comments on whether the Hawaiian green sea turtles comprise a distinct nesting population and requested science on where critical habitat for these and other green sea turtle populations should be established under the ESA.

“It’s our understanding that scientific data has yet to adequately address the recovery of these species based on a goal of 5,000 nesting females,” said Marjorie Ziegler, Executive Director of the Conservation Council for Hawaii. “Furthermore, protecting these animals’ habitat is necessary to ensure their recovery for years to come.”

In February of this year National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) received a petition from the Hawaii Civic Association, which publicly advocates for sea turtle hunting, to classify the Hawaii population of green sea turtle as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) and remove protection under the Endangered Species Act. NMFS responded to the petition with a request for comments and will now begin a scientific review of the status of the Hawaiian green sea turtle.

“The state of Hawai’i is severely compromised in its ability to effectively manage and protect ocean wildlife,” said Rene Umberger of For the Fishes. “If you include the Exclusive Economic Zone that surrounds the islands, Hawaii is the second largest state in the nation, but ranks 48th in fish and wildlife funding.”

Paul Achitoff, attorney with Earthjustice, said, “The honu’s status must be determined based on scientific evidence.  The Fisheries Service has a legal duty under the Endangered Species Act to give the benefit of any doubt to the turtles that Congress put under its care.  It must not bow to the political pressures Western Pacific Fishery Management Council is cynically manipulating to prematurely remove protections to which the turtles are entitled.”

Recent findings of sea turtle shells and remains on Maui, and the gear believed to be used to drown the animals, coupled with anecdotal evidence from admissions made at public meetings of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council and Pacific Whale Foundation indicate illegal killing of sea turtles continues even with the current state and federal prohibitions.

Anyone seeing a sea turtle being harmed, harassed or injured is asked to call DLNR-DOCARE at 1-855-DLNR-TIP or USFWS Enforcement Hotline at 1-808-861-8525 In Hawaii, reports of entangled or stranded sea turtles should be referred to NOAA at 808-983-5730.