By ERIN MILLER
The decision whether to remove some protections from the Hawaiian green sea turtle is now in the federal government’s hands.
The time period in which to submit information, data and observations about the turtles in Hawaii ended Monday. Opponents of the measure rallied comments from around the country, collecting more than 100,000 signatures, said SeaTurtles.org Program Director Teri Shore.
“It certainly sends a message to the U.S. government that there is wide-spread opposition,” Shore said Tuesday.
People “responded vigorously,” to the organization’s request that they weigh in on the petition to delist the green sea turtle in Hawaii, Shore added. The National Marine Fisheries Service accepted the petition, supported by the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, earlier this year, triggering a global status review. The petition would also separate Hawaiian green sea turtles from other sea turtle populations around the world, designating Hawaii’s honu as its own population group.
A majority of Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs members support the measure, President Soulee Stroud said. He noted much of the opposition comes from outside the state.
“They may not fully understand what’s going on,” Stroud said. “There may not be an awareness” of some of the association’s reasons for pursuing the change.
According to the organization’s request, the native Hawaiian community opposed listing the green sea turtle on the Endangered Species Act in 1978. That community would like to resume harvesting honu, which the organization called a “traditional food resource and practice.”
The association also cited reports from the National Marine Fisheries Service that, as of 2004, Hawaii’s green sea turtle population “was approaching the foraging capacity of the Hawaiian Islands.”
Shore said a number of people across the country wrote letters to federal officials on the issue, and provided those letters to SeaTurtle.org.
Bradley Jones wrote to dispute the civic club group’s assertions that sea turtle populations have rebounded enough to be considered an overpopulation.
“These animals have a vital role to play in the ecosystem and if they are removed, coral reefs will suffer,” Jones wrote. “Even if their numbers were substantially higher than they are now, they could never pose a threat to the ecosystem of the reef, because they only feed on seaweed and algae, both of which are growing unchecked on Hawaii’s reefs and smothering corals that make up the reefs.”
Jones said the protections given to sea turtles have led the animals to become accustomed to divers and snorkelers, which would make them an easy target for hunters.
Other opponents cited the conditions that led to overhunting of turtles, which led to the population declines that landed the turtles on the list of threatened species.
“The Hawaiian green sea turtle has not met established recovery goals of 5,000 nesters per year under the Endangered Species Act,” Vicki Wawerchak wrote. “Prematurely removing these protections could reverse decades of conservation. Hunting of green sea turtles led to their near-extinction and should not be allowed to resume under any circumstance. Sea turtle hunting is illegal in most nations around the world and is being phased out in isolated locations where it still occurs in favor of protection and the benefits of eco-tourism.”
SeaTurtle.org officials said surveys in the Hawaiian Islands show about 840 nesting females.
The exact amount of information the public submitted wasn’t immediately available, said Patrick Opay, endangered species branch chief for NOAA’s Pacific Island Regional Office’s Protected Resource Division. NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other federal officials will consider the information submitted in the last few months, then make a recommendation. If new or different rules are proposed, the public will get another chance to comment, Opay said.
NOAA tries to wrap up the entire process within about a year of receiving the petition, he added.
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