By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Scientists say they are months away from finishing a report that could help determine whether green sea turtles in the state retain their threatened status.
In response to a petition, federal researchers last year began compiling data to see if Hawaii’s honu deserves to be considered its own population group, known officially as a discrete population segment, separate from their relatives elsewhere in the Pacific.
If given that distinction, scientists would have to look only at the health of the turtle population in the state when deciding if they deserve protection.
Kyle Van Houtan, a research ecologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service who sits on the panels studying the issue, said the report could be done as early as summer, though the decision to classify the turtles as its own population would have to be made by other officials.
Whether such a designation would make it harder or easier to remove the species from the threatened list remains to be seen, said Pat Opay, endangered species branch chief with the fisheries service in Honolulu.
Advocates for de-listing the turtles and recommencing regulated hunting appear more certain.
In its petition seeking the current study, the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs argued that the state’s turtle population doesn’t meet the criteria for being considered threatened, which comes with federal protections, including prohibitions on hunting.
“The long-term, steady increase in the number of nesting females at the principal Hawaiian green turtle rookery … and increases in the number of immature and adult turtles residing in foraging pastures of the main Hawaiian Islands indicates that this stock is well on the way to recovery,” the group said.
Conservation groups have disagreed, noting loss of habitat and other human-related threats.
The turtle population in the state has increased by 53 percent over 25 years, according to the fisheries service.
From 2002-2006, there were an average of 400 nesting females at the French Frigate Shoals in Hawaii, according to a federal study.
When considering de-listing a species, scientists look at five criteria, including habitat levels and the impacts of disease and predation.
“It isn’t just a (population) trend one way or another,” Opay said.
State lawmakers have tried to weigh in on the issue.
A resolution urging the federal government to de-list Hawaii sea turtles and designate them as a discrete population passed the state House in February but will not be getting a hearing in the Senate.
The resolution was referred to the Senate’s Committee on Energy and Environment, which has declined to hear it.
Sen. Mike Gabbard, who chairs the committee, said in an email that the resolution may be premature.
“We’re not moving forward with HCR 14 because I’m not aware of any scientific evidence that the Hawaiian green sea turtle (honu) has fully recovered,” he said.
Rep. Faye Hanohano, D-Puna, introduced the resolution.
Email Tom Callis at email@example.com.