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

mom and pupMonk seal mom and pup in tidal flat Photo: Jessica AschettinoThe current critical habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal was established in 1988. it includes "all 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 20 fathoms around the following areas in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands:

  • Kure Atoll
  • Midway Islands (except Sand Island and its harbor)
  • Pearl and Hermes Reef
  • Lisianski Island
  • Laysan Island
  • Maro reef
  • Gardner Pinnacles
  • French Frigate Shoals
  • Necker Island
  • Nihoa Island

Additional information on past designations:
51 FR 16047, April 30, 1986
53 FR 18988, May 26, 1988; 50 CFR 226.201
resting seal

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."

Posted 06.12.09
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.

Proposed Rule to Revise Hawaiian Monk Seal Critical Habitat-PUBLIC COMMENT PERIOD REOPENED

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. In response to public concerns and comments, NOAA Fisheries has decided to reopen the public comment period for the proposed rule to revise critical habitat for the Hawaiian monk seal. The public comment period will be reopened from November 7, 2011 for 60-days and will close on January 6, 2012.

Comments received between the close of the first comment period on August 31, 2011 and the reopening of the comment period November 7, 2011 will be considered timely received.

Submit comments by one of the two methods:

Key Documents:

What is the next step in the process of revising monk seal critical habitat?

Following the close of the public comment periods, NOAA Fisheries will review and evaluate the public comments.  As appropriate, comments, concerns and information will be addressed in the final rule or a revision to the proposed rule.

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 impact monk seals throughout the Hawaiian Islands. Currently, federal actions that fall within monk seal critical habitat in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands must also insure that their activities do not destroy or adversely modify critical habitat.

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)