Protected Resources

Critical Habitat

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) was founded with the purpose of conserving not only endangered and threatened species, but also those ecosystems on which the species are dependent in order to promote the species’ survival and recovery.  Areas considered essential for survival and recovery may be proposed for designation as “critical habitat.”

What is Critical Habitat?


Critical habitat is a term defined in section 3 of the ESA, and refers to areas that contain habitat features that are essential for the survival and recovery of a listed species, and which may require special management considerations or protections.

Critical habitat areas:

What Critical Habitat is NOT:

Critical habitat is not a Marine Protected Area (MPA), Marine Life Conservation District (MLCD), Shoreline Fisheries Management Area (SFMA), sanctuary, reserve, refuge, park or wilderness area.

Hawaiian Monk Seal Critical Habitat

Cross-section View of Critical Habitat for Monk Seals

NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian monk seal critical habitat has been revised to describe habitat features and areas that support Hawaiian monk seal conservation. Specific areas designated include 16 occupied areas within the range of the Hawaiian monk seal. These areas contain one or a combination of the features essential to Hawaiian monk seal conservation including:

  • Preferred pupping and nursing areas
  • Significant haul-out areas
  • Marine foraging areas out to 200 m in depth

The Cross-section View of Critical Habitat for Hawaiian Monk Seals infographic on the right highlights monk seal critical habitat in the main Hawaiian Islands.

Areas included in the final designation:

  • In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Hawaiian monk seal critical habitat includes all beach areas, sand spits and islets, including all beach crest vegetation to its deepest extent inland as well as the seafloor and marine habitat 10 m in height above the seafloor from the shoreline out to the 200 m depth contour around:

    • 1) Kure Atoll
    • 2) Midway Atoll
    • 3) Pearl and Hermes Reef
    • 4) Lisianski Island
    • 5) Laysan Island

    • 6) Maro Reef
    • 7) Gardner Pinnacles
    • 8) French Frigate Shoals
    • 9) Necker Island
    • 10) Nihoa Island

  • In the main Hawaiian Islands Hawaiian monk seal critical habitat includes the seafloor and marine habitat to 10 m above the seafloor from the 200 m depth contour through the shoreline and extending into terrestrial habitat 5 m inland from the shoreline between identified boundary points around:

    • 11) Kaula Island (includes marine habitat only see areas not included below)
    • 12) Niihau (includes marine habitat from 10m-200m in depth; see areas not included below)
    • 13) Kauai
    • 14) Oahu
    • 15) Maui Nui (including Kahoolawe, Lanai, Maui, and Molokai)
    • 16) Hawaii

      Boundary Points in the main Hawaiian Islands

Areas not included in the final designation:

  • Certain areas are ineligible for designation because the areas are managed under an Integrated Natural Resource Management Plan (INRMP), that was found to provide a benefit to Hawaiian monk seals (in accordance with Section 4(a)(3)(B)(i) of the ESA). This includes the areas managed under the following INRMPs:

    • Marine Corps Base Hawaii INRMP
      • the 500-yard buffer zone in marine waters surrounding the Marine Corps Base Hawaii (on the Mokapu Peninsula) on Oahu
      • Puuloa Training Facility on the Ewa coastal plain of Oahu

    • Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam INRMP
      • Nimitz Beach
      • White Plains Beach
      • Naval Defensive Sea Area
      • Barbers Point Underwater Range
      • Ewa Training Minefield

    • Pacific Missile Range Facility INRMP
      • Kaula Island
      • Coastal and marine areas out to 10 m in depth around the Island of Niihau

    • Section 4(b)(2) of the ESA requires consideration of economic impacts, impacts to national security, and any other relevant impacts of designation prior to designating any particular area as critical habitat. NOAA Fisheries has the discretion to exclude any area where the benefits of exclusion outweigh the benefits of designation. Pursuant to ESA section 4(b)(2) NMFS excluded the four areas listed below, because the benefits of exclusion (for National Security) outweighed the benefits of designation:
      1. the Kingfisher Underwater Training area in marine areas off the northeast coast of Niihau;
      2. Pacific Missile Range Facility Offshore Areas in marine areas off the western coast of Kauai;
      3. the Puuloa Underwater Training Range in marine areas outside Pearl Harbor, Oahu;
      4. the Shallow Water Minefield Sonar Training Range off the western coast of Kahoolawe in the Maui Nui area.

    • In addition, cliffs and manmade shorelines and structures in existence are not included in the designation because these areas do not meet the definition of critical habitat. Examples of manmade shorelines include docks, seawalls, piers, fishponds, roads, pipelines, boat ramps, platforms, buildings, ramparts and pilings.

Key Documents:


resting seal

What is the purpose of critical habitat and who is affected?

Under section 7 of the ESA, Federal agencies must insure that activities that they fund, authorize (permit or license) or carry out do not jeopardize the continued existence of listed species or result in the destruction or adverse modification of identified critical habitat.  Federal actions that may result in such impacts to a listed species or the species’ identified critical habitat are required to consult with the appropriate regulatory agency, either NOAA Fisheries or the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS).  Please see the ESA Consultation page to learn more about this process.

Non-Federal entities may be involved in these ESA consultations when Federal funding or authorization (permitting, or licensing) are involved. 

Are these consultations taking place now?

Yes, ESA Consultations take place regularly covering Federal actions that may affect Hawaii's listed species (e.g., Hawaiian monk seals and listed sea turtles) throughout the Hawaiian Islands. This final rule will expand the scope of many existing consultations to consider if these Federal actions have the potential to destroy or adversely modify Hawaiian monk seal critical habitat. Through consultation projects are planned to proceeds without adversely affecting the critical habitat.

Additional information on past designations:

Information on the Hawaiian Monk Seal Critical Habitat Petition Process

On July 9th, 2008, the NOAA Fisheries Service (also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service) received a petition by three conservation groups to review and revise critical habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal.  The petition requests this current designation be "expanded to include key beach areas, sand spits and islets, including all beach crest vegetation to its deepest extent inland, lagoon waters, inner reef waters, and ocean waters out to a depth of 200 meters around the main Hawaiian Islands, and to extend critical habitat designation in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to Sand Island and ocean waters out to a depth of 500 meters."

In response to this petition, on October 3rd, 2008, NOAA Fisheries published a "90-day finding" in the Federal Register announcing that the monk seal critical habitat petition presented enough information to consider a revision to designated critical habitat. On June 12th, 2009, NOAA Fisheries published a "12-month finding" in the Federal Register announcing our intention to revise monk seal critical habitat.

On June 2, 2011 NOAA Fisheries published a proposed rule to revise Hawaiian monk seal critical habitat. The public comment period was open for 90-days, until August 31, 2011 and then reopened on November 7, 2011 for an additional 60-days. Due on June 25, 2012, we announced a 6-month extension to the final revision of critical habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal. On August 21, 2015, NOAA Fisheries announced a final revision to Hawaiian monk seal critical habitat (see above).

Key Documents:

How may critical habitat affect YOU?

Public Access

Q: Will I still be able to recreate in beach areas that have been designated as critical habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal?

A: Yes. A critical habitat designation will not impact access to, and recreation on, the public beaches of Hawaii. Critical habitat designation DOES NOT RESTRICT PUBLIC ACCESS, it identifies those areas where Federal agencies should try to protect habitat elements that are important for a listed species’ survival and recovery. Areas designated as critical habitat are not reserves, refuges, Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) or parks.

Fishing

Q: Will I still be able to fish for subsistence or recreation from shorelines that have been designated as critical habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal?

A: Yes. Subsistence and recreational fishing from coastal shorelines in the State of Hawaii is not a Federally funded or authorized activity; therefore, coastal shoreline fishing should not be affected by the designation.

Private Development

Q: Can private development still occur in an area that has been designated as critical habitat?

A: Yes. The only developments that may be affected are those activities requiring Federal funding or authorization, such as filling of a wetland or repair of a seawall. This precaution is in place to ensure that Federal agencies do not destroy or adversely modify critical habitat through development or other activities.

What activities might be impacted and are not likely to be impacted in a critical habitat area?

Activities that might be impacted:

Federally authorized, funded or carried out activities, such as:

Activities not likely to be impacted:

Non-Federal activities on non-Federal public land or water, such as:

Points to Remember...

Critical Habitat Definitions:

Critical habitat:

Destruction or adverse modification:

A direct or indirect alteration that appreciably diminishes the value of critical habitat for both the survival and recovery of a listed species, including but not limited to alterations adversely modifying any of the primary constituent elements (50 CFR Sec 402.02).

Federal action / Federal activity:

Any action carried out, funded, permitted, or authorized by a Federal agency.

Primary constituent elements:

Physical and biological features essential to the conservation of the species, including but not limited to:

1. Space for individual and population growth, and for normal behavior;
2. Food, water, air, light, minerals, or other nutritional or physiological requirements;
3. Cover or shelter;
4. Sites for breeding, reproduction, rearing of offspring, germination, or seed dispersal;and generally
5. Habitats that are protected from disturbance or are representative of the historic geographical and ecological distributions of a species (ESA Sec 3; 50 CFR 424.12).

Unoccupied critical habitat:

Not permanently or seasonally occupied, but necessary to either stabilize the population or assure eventual recovery (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service Endangered Species Consultation Handbook).

More Information

Fact Sheets and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)