The Endangered Species of Hawaii 101
Are there any animals or plants living in Hawaii that are considered “Endangered Species”?
Sadly, Hawaii has earned the dubious honor of being the “Endangered Species Capitol of the World”. Presently, there are 317 species of plants and animals living in the islands that are considered either endangered or threatened – many of them endemic (found only here).
Who decides if an animal or plant is endangered or threatened, and on what basis do they make the decision?
In the United States, the Fish and Wildlife Service (under the Department of the Interior), and the National Marine Fisheries Service (under the Department of Commerce) share responsibilities for listing and delisting species and creating recovery plans. Basically, species are listed as “Endangered” if they’re likely to become extinct, and “Threatened” if they’re likely to become endangered, but it’s a long process.
What are some of the endangered or threatened animals I can still see?
Probably the most visible endangered mammal (at least from December thru April) in Hawaii is the Humpback Whale. If you’re looking for reptiles, the threatened Pacific Green Sea Turtle can be found in shallow protected bays along much of the Kohala Coast. Much rarer are the Hawaiian Monk Seal (we’ve actually seen them a few times in Anaeho’omalu Bay), and the ‘Alala (Hawaiian Crow) – though you can be certain of seeing its namesake if you visit our catamaran in Kawaihae.
There is actually a seal that lives in Hawaii? What can you tell me about it?
Yes! According to NOAA’s Office of Protected Resources, the Hawaiian Monk Seal is “one of the rarest marine mammals in the world”. Males grow to about 7 feet long and females to 7.5 feet long (that’s called “reverse sexual dimorphism” – Humpback whales demonstrate the same relationship). They feed on benthic (animals living at the bottom of the ocean) fish and invertebrates – and in turn, are preyed upon by Tiger and Galapagos Sharks. There are probably fewer than 1,100 Monk Seals left in the world, though the population around the main Hawaiian Islands seems to be increasing slightly. Hawaiians called Monk Seals “Ilio holo I ka uaua” which means “dog that runs in rough water”.
So, if I find an animal that’s listed as “Endangered” or “Threatened” when I’m out snorkeling, how close can I get? Is picture taking allowed?
As long as you’re not taking the animal out of its environment (or parts of the animal) you are allowed to approach animals listed as endangered or threatened, and of course you can take pictures. Be aware though, that if you get close enough to an animal to disturb its natural behavior, you may be violating federal or state statutes and putting your own safety at risk. Both NOAA and the DLNR (Department of Land and Natural Resources) suggest that everyone stay at least 150 feet from all marine mammals and turtles. And the Marine Mammal Protection Act requires everyone to stay at least 100 yards from Humpback Whales.
What do I do if I find an endangered animal that looks like it’s in trouble?
First of all, be aware that animals that are entangled, injured or stranded may act unpredictably and endanger your safety so approaching them is not recommended. If you find a marine mammal (whale, dolphin or seal) you suspect may be in trouble, you can call the NOAA Marine Mammal Hotline at (888)256-9840. If you see a sea turtle in trouble, you can click here to find island-specific phone numbers to call. Please remember that turtles in Hawaii often come ashore to bask, so not every turtle on the beach is a stranded turtle.
What can I do if I see someone clearly harassing an endangered species?
Often people approach endangered species out of curiosity, and many people don’t even realize their behaviors may constitute harassment and cause stress to the animal, so we believe education is usually all that’s needed. People can behave unpredictably too, so we always recommend first informing someone around you who’s acting in an official capacity (life guard, boat captain, etc.). And you can also call the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement Hotline at (800)853-1974 and the DLNR Statewide Hotline at (808)643-DLNR.
DAR Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources: Marine Mammals and Sea Turtles. March 2011. http://hawaii.gov/dlnr/dar/marine_mammals.html
Endangered Species Act Overview. March 2011. http://www.fws.gov/endangered/laws-policies/index.html
NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources: Hawaiian Monk Seal. March 2011. http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/pinnipeds/hawaiianmonkseal.htm