Board Denies NMFS Request To Cull Sharks in Northwest Isles
“Did we do the right thing? It’s a tough one,” Tim Johns said as he was leaving the March 23 meeting of the Land Board. Johns, an at-large member, and the rest of the board had just voted to defer approval of a request by the National Marine Fisheries Service to cull up to 15 Galapagos sharks from waters off French Frigate Shoals in the state’s Northwest Hawaiian Islands marine refuge.
According to NMFS, 15 or so Galapagos sharks are preying on monk seal pups before they are fully weaned at French Frigate Shoals. Monk seals are critically endangered, with roughly 1,200 left in the wild. Most of them live in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands.
The NMFS permit request is the first to be made under the state’s new Northwest Hawaiian Islands marine refuge, which was established by the Land Board last year. The state Division of Aquatic Resources, which administers the refuge, completed work on its permit guidelines earlier this year and had anticipated NMFS’ request, but didn’t receive a completed permit application until March 22, the day before the Land Board meeting. Still, the item was noticed in the board’s agenda posted a week earlier.
The application sought two permits — one to provide the NMFS research vessel with access to the refuge, and another for several proposed monk seal, cetacean, and sea turtle research activities, including monitoring, cetacean biopsies, shark culling and small boat operations. The permits would cover activities from April 8 to September 15, 2006.
Because the DAR had just completed its permit guidelines in late February, NMFS had very little time to prepare a permit application and DAR had even less time to review it.
“This project leaves here every year at this time,” DAR’s Athline Clark told the Land Board at its March 23 meeting. (Before the state established its refuge, NMFS carried out similar activities under a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers its own reserve in the NWHI.)
Although the DAR’s new permit guidelines state that a committee of several agencies (including the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the FWS, the federal Northwest Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve, and the Kaho`olawe Island Reserve Commission) will review each permit application, that committee was not in place at the time of the board meeting.
As a result, the application was reviewed only by DAR’s protected species program coordinator who sits on the Hawaiian monk seal recovery team, a shark expert, and a native Hawaiian who works for the Kaho`olawe Island Reserve Commission. The FWS and the NWHI Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve were asked to comment on the application, but did not respond by DAR’s submittal deadline.
The review was mixed. While the monk seal expert supported the entire NMFS proposal, the shark and Native Hawaiian experts had several concerns about the shark culling, which NMFS proposed to accomplish using high-powered rifles.
According to a DAR report, the shark expert questioned whether the few sharks of concern could be easily identified. “He was also not sure that the data exists given annual fluctuations in climatic conditions to justify and ensure that predation behavior is not more variable than outlined in the application. He was concerned about the use of high-powered rifles and did not think that this would be an effective method to kill the sharks and may create more of a problem by attracting more sharks to the area to feed on the wounded shark… he recommends that we allow them to only take 5 sharks at a time and then come back in for a request for authorization to take 5 more. He also recommended capping the total number of sharks at 10,” DAR’s report states.
KIRC executive director Sol Kaho`ohalahala wrote Clark on March 17 that the commission was “concerned that the applicant places value on one native species over another native species in a pristine marine habitat.”
Kaho`ohalahala also questioned NMFS’ assertions that sharks were killing healthy seal pups and suggested that sharks might be preying on sick or scavenging on dead pups.
Based on these reviews, DAR recommended that the Land Board allow the taking of only five sharks at a time, with a cap at ten. It also recommended that high-powered rifles not be allowed.
At the board’s March meeting, NMFS deputy regional administrator Mike Tosatto asked that DAR’s recommendations be amended to reflect the original request in the permit application.
Bud Antonelis, chief protected species investigator for NMFS’ Pacific office, explained to the Land Board that the monk seal population was declining at about 4 percent a year and at that rate, within five years, there will be fewer than 1,000 seals. Although juvenile mortality is the primary reason for their decline, the predation of pre-weaned pups by Galapagos sharks has been a significant cause of monk seal death, he said.
In 1988, NMFS scientists tagged a small number of sharks at French Frigate Shoals that seemed to have learned to prey on monk seals there. The disappearance of the pupping site known as Whaleskate had concentrated the females that used to give birth there onto nearby Trig Island. The concentration of females, coupled with aggressive males trying to mate with weaned pups, caused an influx of pup carcasses in the water. The sharks then began to feed on these carcasses, he said.
After the aggressive males were moved to Johnston Atoll, the sharks, with no more carcasses to feed on, began preying on pre-weaned pups, he continued.
“These are not sick, debilitated pups,” Antonelis said, addressing claims made by some that the sharks were simply doing what came naturally.
Johns noted that NMFS took 12 sharks in the last six years, yet the monk seal population is still declining.
“What difference does [10 more] make?” he asked.
Antonelis said that although the entire population of monk seals is declining, culling seems to have slowed the rate of decline at French Frigate Shoals. Every pup is valuable to the survival of the species, he said.
Tosatto added, “We don’t see this as a silver bullet….[But] we target sharks that are actively …making runs at pups to remove the learned desire to take pups.”
“They won’t be replaced by other smart sharks [and] there’s no other way than to use rifles?” Johns asked.
Antonelis said they had tried everything from crossbows with blunt tips to throwing pieces of coral at the sharks. The sharks soon learned that when people are around, they’d be harassed, and changed their behavior to hunting at dawn and dusk, when researchers are not allowed to be on the water, he said.
The options to control the sharks are narrowing, he said, adding that he didn’t think they would take more than 15 sharks.
“This is only happening at French Frigate Shoals,” he said.
Johns, who is also chair of the federal NWHI Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve Advisory Council, noted that Antonelis was a marine mammal expert and asked whether he was able to assess the ecosystem impacts of taking out the aggressive sharks.
Antonelis said that simulations show that taking a few dozen sharks would have no effect on the ecosystem.
“Ecosystem models don’t always answer questions in the best way possible, but it gives us an estimate of the consequences,” he said.
When Johns asked at what point the model showed there would be an ecosystem impact, Antonelis admitted, “We haven’t pushed it that far.”
“Should we start culling tiger sharks because a surfer got bit?” Johns asked, referring to a Canadian visitor who had recently been bitten by a shark while surfing O`ahu’s North Shore.
Antonelis explained that his proposal was different in that he would only target those sharks clearly intending to kill a pup. He added that some of those sharks had already been identified, including a very large one nicknamed ‘Chop-chop.’
If the pup-killing behavior isn’t extinguished, there is a probability it could spread archipelago-wide, he said.
About five years ago, the FWS agreed with NMFS to research the shark predation, said Don Palawski, assistant field supervisor for the Pacific FWS office. While there is strong evidence that the predatory behavior exists, the FWS is not sure how best to control it, he said. He added that the FWS hadn’t had yet taken a position on the proposed method of killing the sharks and asked the Land Board to give his agency time to evaluate the scientific basis of the proposal.
Cha Smith, executive director for the non-profit KAHEA (the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance) read testimony written by Stephanie Fried, a scientist with Environmental Defense. Both belong to a hui of advocacy groups interested in the protection of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Smith commented that there must be some way that 40 researchers can protect the pups without killing the “bad actors.” She also said the DLNR’s evaluation process doesn’t include any ecosystem experts, and that NMFS’ application didn’t mention that seals have been found emaciated.
A report by NMFS states that it had rejected non-lethal deterrents (nets, electromagnetic fields, physical barriers, and relocation) because they posed a threat to monk seals, other shark species, or would displace the “bad” Galapagos sharks to locations where they might initiate their predatory behavior at new sites.
Although the Hawaiian monk seal recovery team submitted testimony supporting NMFS’ proposal, Johns said he was not inclined to support the culling because it had not been adequately reviewed by the FWS and the native Hawaiian community.
“At the state, we have an obligation to protect native Hawaiian interests,” he said.
Maui Land Board member Ted Yamamura moved to accept NMFS’ proposal except for the shark culling, which could be brought back to the board after it had been reviewed by the relevant parties. His motion passed unanimously.
For Kainalu Ranch
The Board of Land and Natural Resources has approved its first acquisition with money from its new Land Conservation Fund, which was established by the Legislature last year to buy fee simple property or easements to preserve lands the state deems valuable.
At its April 13 meeting, the Land Board provided the Maui Coastal Land Trust with a grant of $1.1 million to be used with $1.4 million from the federal Farm and Ranch Protection Program and $300,000 from Kainalu Ranch to purchase an agricultural conservation easement over 167 acres owned by Kainalu Ranch. Maui Coastal Land Trust will hold the easement, which will run with the land in perpetuity and protect it from being converted into non-agricultural uses.
The property, located on the southeast coast of Moloka`i, is used mostly for cattle grazing, but also contains freshwater springs, many archaeological sites and an upland mesic forest that contributes to the recharge of the Waialua aquifer, a Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife report states.
“Successful completion of this acquisition could encourage other owners of agricultural lands to explore an agricultural conservation easement, benefiting the entire state by protecting open space and preventing agricultural lands from being developed into large-lot residential developments,” DOFAW’s report states.
All Tree Gets 30 Days
To Conform to Ag Lease
The tree-trimming company All Tree Services, Inc. has been given another 30 days to stop using its Waimanalo nursery property for anything other than intensive agriculture.
At the Land Board’s April 13 meeting, DLNR Land Division staff recommended that the board terminate the company’s agricultural lease because it has been using parts of the property as a baseyard. A month earlier, the board, faced with the same recommendation, had deferred the matter for 30 days to give All Tree’s owner Terry Rodrigues time to relocate his baseyard to a Department of Hawaiian Home Lands site in Kapolei, despite testimony by several area farmers that All Tree’s industrial use of the property deprived “true” farmers access to reasonably priced land. (For details, see the April 2006 issue of Environment Hawai`i.)
In the weeks following the boards’ March 10 meeting, All Tree Services moved most of its equipment offsite. However, “As of the date of preparation of this submittal, March 31, 2006, staff was unable to confirm that All Tree has physically relocated to the Kapolei site,” an April 13 Land Division report states. As a result, division staff again recommended cancellation of the lease.
At the April 13 Land Board meeting, however, All Tree’s attorney Kali Watson complained, “With respect to showing compliance, an invitation was made to the board and staff to visit the site…The offer was never taken up. There was no follow-through.”
He added that the nursery had expanded and that three employees who recently brought their All Tree Services trucks to the site were immediately terminated. A chart presented by Watson listing the locations of all of All Tree’s equipment showed that only a backhoe, an excavator, a chipper, and a truck were still stored at the Waimanalo property.
Even so, farmer Tom Staton, who grows turfgrass across the street from All Tree, said that the company still operated its tree-trimming business from the property.
“There is a dispatch board on the wall… People go in and out of the office all day long and you rarely see someone working in the nursery,” he said. He added that the trucks no longer “roar up at five in the morning,” but that the drivers instead meet at the Waimanalo Jack in the Box.
“Why are their trucks in the neighborhood? There are not a lot of jobs in Waimanalo,” another testifier said.
A few testifiers said that the nursery was merely a shadow operation for All Tree Services. DLNR lessee Ed Miyashita added that he believed the company wasn’t using all of its greenwaste as mulch, but was burying some of it.
Timothy Ross, who works at the nursery, admitted that not a lot of work goes on at the nursery, but said that using All Tree’s waste for mulch and weed control “works for us.”
Waimanalo farmer Patrick Oka also supported All Tree’s operation, saying that tree trimming is an agricultural activity.
Rodrigues said he recently secured a lease in Aikahi Shopping Center and had moved some his vehicles to a residential property in Kailua and to a site in Kalaeloa.
Despite Watson and Rodrigues’ assurances that things had changed at the site, Land Board member Johns said he believed that violations were continuing and “there’s been ample time to cure them.” Johns moved to approve staff’s recommendation, but his motion failed 3 to 1, with Big Island member Gerald DeMello casting the opposing vote. (Only four of the seven Land Board members were present. Four aye votes are needed for a motion to pass.)
Because Johns’ motion failed, the board voted to defer the matter for another 30 days.
— Teresa Dawson
Volume 16, Number 11 May 2006