State of the Beach/State Reports/HI/Beach Ecology

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To the casual observer, beaches may simply appear as barren stretches of sand - beautiful, but largely devoid of life or ecological processes. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Sandy beaches not only provide habitat for numerous species of plants and animals, they also serve as breeding grounds for many species that are not residential to the beach. Additionally, beaches function as areas of high primary production. Seaweeds and other kinds of algae flourish in shallow, coastal waters, and beaches serve as repositories for these important inputs to the food chain. In this way, beaches support a rich web of life including worms, bivalves, and crustaceans. This community of species attracts predators such as seabirds, which depend on sandy beaches for their foraging activities. In short, sandy beaches are diverse and productive systems that serve as a critical link between marine and terrestrial environments.

Erosion of the beach, whether it is “natural” erosion or erosion exacerbated by interruptions to historical sand supply, can negatively impact beach ecology by removing habitat. Other threats to ecological systems at the beach include beach grooming and other beach maintenance activities. Even our attempts at beach restoration may disrupt the ecological health of the beach. Imported sand may smother natural habitat. The grain size and color of imported sand may influence the reproductive habits of species that utilize sandy beaches for these functions.

In the interest of promoting better monitoring of sandy beach systems, the Surfrider Foundation would like to see the implementation of a standardized methodology for assessing ecological health. We believe that in combination, the identified metrics such as those described below can function to provide a revealing picture of the status of beach systems. We believe that a standardized and systematic procedure for assessing ecological health is essential to meeting the goals of ecosystem-based management. And, we believe that the adoption of such a procedure will function to better inform decision makers, and help bridge the gap that continues to exist between science and policy. The Surfrider Foundation proposes that four different metrics be used to complete ecological health assessments of sandy beaches. These metrics include

  1. quality of habitat,
  2. status of ‘indicator’ species,
  3. maintenance of species richness, and
  4. management practices.

It is envisioned that beach systems would receive a grade (i.e., A through F), which describes the beach’s performance against each of these metrics. In instances where information is unavailable, beaches would be assigned an incomplete for that metric. Based on the beach’s overall performance against the four metrics, an “ecological health” score would be identified.


Two objectives of the Hawaii Coastal Management Program (HCMP) are to “Protect valuable coastal ecosystems, including reefs, from disruption and minimize adverse impacts on all coastal ecosystems” and to “Promote the protection, use, and development of marine and coastal resources to assure their sustainability”. Chapter 205A, HRS indicates coastal zone management program objectives and policies.

Two species that are designated for special protection in Hawaii are the Hawaiian monk seal and the green sea turtle.

Hawaii Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Plan

In recognition of the need to provide long-term protection for significant coastal and estuarine resources, Congress created the Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program (CELCP) in 2002. This national initiative enables states to permanently protect coastal and estuarine lands by providing matching funds for community-based projects to acquire property from willing sellers (either in full or through conservation easements). A Hawaii Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Plan has been prepared by the University of Hawaii for the Hawaii Coastal Zone Management Program. Here is the approved Plan (2014).

In general, the Hawai‘i Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Plan emphasizes the protection of shoreline areas threatened by development and conversion to a non-natural state. Priority is allotted to ecologically significant lands that can be effectively managed or protected, and in particular, projects that advance the goals, objectives and implementation of existing land conservation programs already operating within the State of Hawai‘i.

Shoreline habitats in an undisturbed state were once common in Hawai‘i but are now increasingly rare as a result of sustained development pressures. This category includes areas directly adjacent to the sea such as beach or dune communities and anchialine ponds where fresh and saltwater mix through underground connections. Sand beaches are increasingly threatened in all parts of Hawai‘i as a result of residential and recreational development, and human activities continue to impact the movement of sand and sustainability of shoreline habitats. Coastlines with natural vegetation such as naupaka kahakai (Scaevola sericea) and undisturbed dune vegetation are particularly rare. Retaining longer segments of undisturbed shoreline is essential to supporting long-term habitat viability and protecting native coastal wildlife such as seabirds, migratory shorebirds, Hawaiian monk seals and the green sea turtle.


A number of important coastal sites in the State of Hawai‘i have recently been purchased for conservation purposes with the assistance of congressionally-directed CELCP funds. These sites include:

  • Waihe‘e Coastal Dunes and Wetlands Reserve (Maui)
  • Mu‘olea Point (Maui)
  • Pupukea-Paumalu Natural Area (Oahu)
  • Honu‘apo Estuary (Hawaii)
  • Kilauea Bay (Kauai)

The Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has a Comprehensive Wildlife Conservation Strategy website that provides information on administrative rules, critical habitat, and conservation education for both aquatic and terrestrial species. Here is a link to the draft Strategy submitted in 2005.

Monk Seal

Hawaiian Monk Seal

The Hawaiian monk seal was listed as endangered throughout its range on November 23, 1976. Population counts have been made at the atolls, islands, and reefs where they haul out in the northwest Hawaiian Islands since the late 1950s. By 1982, the population had declined to half of its 1957-1958 level. The population is dropping at about four percent per year. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) estimates that currently there are fewer than 1200 animals, and the number will drop below 1000 in the next three to four years. The number of births declined significantly at all five major breeding locations in 1990, followed by some recovery in subsequent years. However, the number of births has not reached the level observed in the mid-to-late 1980s, and is not expected to in the near future because of the high losses of immature seals at French Frigate Shoals and mobbed seals at Laysan and Lisianski Islands.

The Hawaiian monk seal is most abundant on Kure Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Reef, Lisianski Island, Laysan Island, French Frigate Shoals, Necker Island, and Nihoa Island. This species is vulnerable to human disturbance on pupping and haulout beaches, entanglement in marine debris, incidental take in commercial fisheries, possible die-offs from disease and naturally occurring biotoxins, male mobbing of female seals, and shark predation. A new threat discussed in this article is toxoplasmosis, a disease caused by a pathogen in cat feces that is carried to the ocean in polluted runoff and sewage.

The first Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Team, appointed in 1980, submitted its final recovery plan to NMFS in 1982. The plan, which includes a comprehensive research and management plan for the recovery of the Hawaiian monk seal, was published by NMFS in March 1983. A new recovery team was appointed by NMFS in 1989. After the new team's first meeting in 1989, recommendations were submitted to NMFS. Recommendations included research programs, data analyses, the Kure Atoll Head Start Project, the male mobbing problem, population monitoring, recovery actions at Midway Island, the repair of research facilities at Tern Island, and priorities for the 1990 field season. The team has recommended placing observers aboard long-line swordfish vessels operating near the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. In December 1993, the point at which Hawaiian monk seals may be considered recovered was discussed.

The new recovery team concluded that the 1983 recovery plan still provides a useful guide to overall recovery needs. In 2007, instead of producing a new plan, the team updated the 1983 plan with results of subsequent annual program reviews.

In May 1988, NMFS designated critical habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal out from shore to 20 fathoms in 10 areas of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. NMFS is currently redefining the Hawaiian monk seal's critical habitat. On June 2, 2011, NMFS published a proposed rule in the Federal Register for the critical habitat revision, which would extend the limit in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands to the 500 meter depth contour line, include Sand Island in the Midways Islands, and add six new areas in the main Hawaiian Islands. Critical habitat designation directly affects only Federal agencies and those who need Federal authorization or funding for their actions. The agencies most likely to be affected by this designation include the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Navy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Minerals Management Service, Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, and NMFS.

Using the 1983 recovery plan, the recommendations of the recovery team, and the recommendations of the Marine Mammal Commission, NMFS has developed a draft 3-year comprehensive work plan that will serve as the mechanism for identifying funding needs for fiscal years 1994-1996. The identified tasks focus on recovery of monk seal populations in the western portion of the species' range, resolution of the mobbing problem at Laysan and Lisianski Islands and monitoring monk seal populations at the five major breeding locations of French Frigate Shoals, Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure Atoll.

More information on the Hawaiian monk seal and related marine and beach ecology issues can be found at the website for Kahea, the Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance. Also see Hawaiian Monk Seals: From Controversy to Cooperation, a Case Study of Cooperative Federalism. Also see the video below.

An article Cute with Consequences appeared in Honolulu Weekly Magazine on September 28,2011. The article explores conflicting views on the best ways to protect the monk seal population.

Green Sea Turtle

Green sea turtles are listed as a threatened species and protected in Hawaii under state law, the federal Endangered Species Act, and listed under the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES), making it illegal to import or export turtle products. It is illegal to kill, capture, or harass sea turtles.

The most significant threats to green sea turtles are entanglement in fishing gear and death from incidental bycatch in commercial fisheries. Sea turtles can be inadvertently caught and drowned in trawl nets pulled by fishing vessels harvesting shrimp. The United States has reduced sea turtle deaths by requiring U.S. shrimp trawlers to use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) to reduce turtle drownings; however, mortalities from foreign shrimp vessels may still be substantial. In addition, thousands of sea turtles become entangled in fishing line, discarded nets and plastics floating in the ocean. Plastics are very detrimental when ingested by sea turtles, as they block the digestive system and are toxic. Cigarette butts are also extremely harmful, as turtles cannot digest the filters, which contain toxic ingredients. Noise, lights, and beach obstructions are disruptive to nesting areas and threaten the reproductive cycle of green sea turtles.

Up to 50 percent of green turtles in the main Hawaiian Islands have a disease called firbropapilloma (FP). FP causes tumors as large as a grapefruit to grow over a turtle's eyes, mouth, neck or flippers. The tumors are not deadly until they block the sight, breathing, or feeding activities of the turtle. The cause of FP is not known, though it occurs more so in areas highly impacted by human activities. It is perhaps related to pollutants, blood parasites, or habitat change.

For more information on the Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle see here.

For general information on sea turtles visit:

The following press release from DLNR illustrates a problem that can occur when humans and their pets get too close to endangered species:

Native Seabirds Killed by Loose Dog at Baldwin Beach, March 24, 2004

SPRECKELSVILLE, MAUI — More than a dozen protected Hawaiian seabirds in a nesting colony were killed yesterday at Baldwin Beach, the victims of a loose-roaming dog. The deaths were reported to Dept. of Land and Natural Resources Division of Forestry and Wildlife Maui office by residents who live next to the nesting area. A DLNR-Forestry technician responded and found 15 dead birds. The birds were taken for further study to determine specifics of death.

"Hawaii's beaches and dunes are more than a playground for people and pets. In some places they are also nesting grounds for seabirds, such as the ua‘u kani (wedge tailed shearwater) and green sea turtles, and resting places for monk seals," said Peter Young, DLNR chairperson.

"Unfortunately, some of these wild animals are killed, as in this case, or disturbed when people allow their animals to run free instead of keeping them home, or on a leash as required by law," said Peter Young, DLNR chairperson.

"This is a regrettable, and preventable, occurrence," said Young. " Pet owners need to be responsible for their animals."

"DLNR's Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement is aware of this situation and is investigating the incident. DLNR-Enforcement officers will also be monitoring the beach and will issue citations for unleashed dogs," said Young.

Shearwater chicks hatch each July and remain in their burrows beneath the dunes while their parents feed them, until about November or December. During the early winter months the young birds, often still sporting downy feathers, start to "fledge," or learn to fly for the first time, getting ready to head out to sea to feed on their own. By springtime, the adult breeding birds come in and clean out their burrows with active digging. As they do this, the birds are often vocal and attract notice of dogs and cats.

"It takes shearwaters four to five years minimum to reach sexual maturity. The losses of future generations from these 15 adults will be really hard to replace," said Fern Duvall, DLNR-Forestry wildlife biologist on Maui. Duvall says, "There is a leash law, even on beaches. If people must let dogs run free, we ask that you not let dogs run unwatched from April to December, and especially not near any beaches with high sand dunes, beach naupaka stands, or where there is "a bluff" going down to sea . All of these could have seabird colonies in and on the dunes."

"The ua‘u kani is the "aku bird" of the fisherman, an indigenous Hawaiian bird, protected by state and federal laws under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. They need every bit of help from us to sustain their numbers in modern Hawai‘i," said Duvall.

Other Coastal Ecosystems

An outstanding publication of DLNR is Marine Protected Areas in Hawaii (2005). This 14-page report contains a good discussion of the value of MPAs and places them in the historical context of Hawaiian tradition and culture. DLNR's Division of Aquatic Resources has additional information on Marine Managed Areas. Also see NOAA's information on Marine Protected Areas.

An interesting document is Economic Valuation of the Coral Reefs of Hawaii, which reports the findings of a socioeconomic study of Hawaiian reefs. The Hawaii coral reef study was part of a larger national evaluation.

NOAA's Environmental Sensitivity Index (ESI) maps provide a concise summary of coastal resources that are at risk if an oil spill occurs nearby. Examples of at-risk resources include biological resources (such as birds and shellfish beds), sensitive shorelines (such as marshes and tidal flats), and human-use resources (such as public beaches and parks).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal Services Center, in partnership with NatureServe and others are developing the Coastal and Marine Ecological Classification Standard (CMECS), a standard ecological classification system that is universally applicable for coastal and marine systems and complementary to existing wetland and upland systems.

Contact Info

Chris Conger
Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands
Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources

Leo Asuncion
CZM Program Manager

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