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Opinion pieces, analyses and letters are intended to provide a diverse range of views from our community. They are not intended to represent the views of Maui Now.

Push to Restore Hunting
of Hawaiian Turtles Underway

Updated 02:17 PM HST, October 25, 2012
Posted 02:27 PM HST, October 19, 2012

By Anne Rillero


Hawaiian green sea turtle. Photo courtesy Pacific Whale Foundation.

In traditional Hawaiian culture, some families consider green sea turtles to be ‘aumakua, or personal deities. Snorkelers and divers cherish encounters with the docile marine reptiles readily found among Hawaii’s reefs.

Some Hawaii residents fondly recall when the turtles provided meat for their tables – and would like to be allowed to hunt them again.

Because Hawaii’s green sea turtles are listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act (ESA), it is illegal to harass, feed, hunt, capture or kill the turtles. The turtles – known as “honu” in Hawaiian – received this protection in 1978, following decades of commercial exploitation that caused their population to plummet, and the failure of a Hawaii state law passed in 1974 to reverse the decline.

A pending decision by National Marine Fisheries Service and US Fish and Wildlife could erase this federal protection, which would return the turtles’ management to the state.

The current review of the turtle’s status was triggered by a petition filed by the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs last February, which asked that Hawaiian green sea turtles be reclassified as a “distinct population segment” and that this distinct population be considered for “delisting” from the US Endangered Species list.

“For Hawaiians, the honu — if you remove the emotions — the honu gives us sustenance,” said Charles Kaaiai, speaking at the Maui Sea Turtle Symposium conducted last month by Pacific Whale Foundation. Kaaiai, a member of the civic clubs association, is the indigenous coordinator of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, a federal organization that manages and implements laws governing fishing activity in Hawaii.


Photo courtesy PWF.

According to Kaaiai, who grew up hunting and eating turtles, the turtles’ population levels have recovered to the point that federal protections are no longer warranted.

Pacific Whale Foundation’s Conservation Manager Lauren Campbell, who also spoke at the symposium, disagreed. She pointed out that the number of turtles thought to be nesting each year in Hawaii still does not match sustainable recovery criteria, as stipulated in the Recovery Plan for the US Pacific Populations of the Green Turtle, a document created by the Marine Fisheries Service and US Fish and Wildlife.

According to Campbell, honu still face numerous threats, including “habitat loss due to sea level rise, entanglement in fishing gear, behavioral changes due to human interference, habitat alteration in foraging grounds due to coastal development, pollution of key habitat areas and high incidence of a tumor-causing disease known as fibropapillomatosis in certain foraging areas.”

The civic club association’s petition triggered steps mandated by the ESA, beginning with a 90-day initial review by the Fisheries Service and US Fish and Wildlife. On August 1, the agencies concluded that initial assessment, reporting “the petitioned action may be warranted” based on scientific and commercial information in Fisheries Service files.

A formal status review is now underway, to be completed by mid-February. “We are conducting this scientifically and objectively,” says Patrick Opay, Endangered Species Branch Chief of the Protected Resources Division, Pacific Regional Office of the Fisheries Service. “There is no assumption the turtles will be delisted; there is no leaning in any direction.”

If the turtles are delisted, an existing Hawaii law makes it illegal to hunt the turtles. Yet environmentalists believe delisting would be premature, and express concern about returning the turtles to the control of a state government struggling with limited funding for wildlife management.

The Fisheries Service and US Fish and Wildlife had accepted public input pertaining to the review prior to October 1, which brought more than 300 letters, postcards and testimonies, reported Opay.

Photo courtesy PWF.

“Many private citizens and environmental organizations have questioned the State of Hawaii’s ability to enforce a management plan that would continue to sustain honu populations,” wrote the Conservation Council of Hawaii in their testimony.

Cheryl King, Maui Research Coordinator of Hawaii Wildlife Fund’s Hawksbill Recovery Project, commented that living turtles have greater economic value in attracting visitors to the state.

“Announcing that turtles can be hunted again will cast a dark shadow over Hawaii,” she wrote, “A turtle slaughter would be a horrible thing for most families to witness, especially if they’ve experienced the beauty of watching them underwater.”

To submit a letter, or raise an important Maui issue that you feel we should investigate, send an email to editor@mauinow.com. Attach any relevant images to the email.

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Editor's Note:Maui Now is an open forum and we welcome any views. However, please apply your sense of aloha when posting comments - remarks that are unnecessarily offensive will be blocked.

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  • Lalakea

    I think the only significant “failure” here is Anne Rillero’s failure to understand or recognize historical facts. The State banned commercial honu hunting in 1974, and in 1977 when honu were being considered being listing as a protected species under the Federal Endangered Species Act, several conservation organizations in Hawaii (e.g.,Hawaii Sierra Club, Hawaii Audubon Society, Bishop Museum) recommended against the federal listing, stating that the ban on commercial hunting by itself would lead to honu population recovery. Even if the honu are delisted from the federal ESA, they will still be protected from harassment,

    Regarding the enforcement of honu conservation laws, on virtually all inhabited Hawaiian islands (except perhaps Oahu because of federal agency presence there) it is and always has been State enforcement officers (not federal enforcement officers) that respond to honu conservation violations 99% of the time; therefore, it is unclear what the Conservation Council for Hawaii is trying to imply?
    BTW, both state and federal budgets are being tightened, not just the state’s budget.State fishery biologists respond to honu strandings, entangled or hooked honu, honu attacked by sharks or hit by vessels, and/or honu nesting, and hatchlings (during the nesting season) on a weekly basis.

    Cheryl King”s comment that living turtles have greater
    economic value in attracting visitors to the state, clearly shows her bias towards importing people (tourists), rather than taking care of Hawaii’s people which is the policy of our State Constitution Also, when I think of King’s comment that “A turtle slaughter would be a horrible thing for most families to witness…”, I
    envision tourists returning from Sea Life Park stopping at McDonald’s to
    feed the kids..but what if the family had to witness the cow being slaughtered? They basically have no idea how to butcher a cow, how hamburger is made, how the cow is killed, and they are unaware of the fossil fuels used to ship the meat here from the continental US But they are happily returning from Sea Life Park eating their hamburgers!. Her comments remind me of a quote of Lewis Mumford (1954)
    that said, “It is the arrogance of the rich to preach the benefits of
    poverty to the poor.”.

    Finally, our State Constitution clearly sets policy that the State of Hawaii must protect, conserve, and sustain Hawaii’s natural and cultural resources for the “people of Hawaii”, not for visitors from other states…it’s a honu nation! Aloha no e malama pono, Lalakea

    • Anne Rillero

      In response to some of the comments about my statement of “the failure
      of a Hawaii state law passed in 1974 to reverse the decline,” I would
      like to share the following excerpt from a NMFS report titled

      “An estimation of the number of people having a desire to legally catch
      turtles in Hawaii can be obtained from the State’s official records of the
      turtles taken for ‘home use’ between May 1974 and September 1978. A total
      of 84 turtles was reported during this 53-month period. The available
      records do not show how many fishermen were involved, but it is safe to
      assume that multiple catches were made by a number of the same people. A
      liberal estimate would be 35 fishermen, although the actual number is
      probably less than 20. The number of people taking turtles illegally
      during this same period was undoubtedly many times greater. The
      enforcement of marine conservation measures by the State of Hawaii has been
      a continuing problem. Fishing regulations are not obeyed and when
      violators are caught and prosecuted the fines are too small to be a
      deterrent (Kiser 1978).”

      Please also note some of the problems with the State law’s designation
      of “home use” of green sea turtles, in this additional excerpt from
      the 1983 report:

      “Home use, however, covered a far broader range of uses, since it was
      not limited to those persons with a nutritional need to take turtles..
      Under the State regulation, home use was equivalent to any
      ‘non-commercial’ take of green turtles…It also allowed the
      accidental capture of turtles during other fishing activities and the
      taking of turtles for sport, recreation, and trophies. After the
      regulation went into effect, some restaurants continued to serve what
      was said to be ‘pre-Act’ turtle meat. In one restaurant this
      reportedly consisted of several thousand pounds stored in a freezer.”

      The State law clearly had its problems and was not viewed as effective
      in reversing the declining trend. In 1973, there were only 67 nesting
      turtles found on the main nesting site for Hawaiian green sea turtles
      at East Island, in French Frigate Shoals. As the NMFS report
      states, at least 84 turtles were known to be taken by hunters in
      Hawaii during the period after the State law was passed in 1974 and
      before the turtles were protected under the U.S. Endangered Species
      Act in 1978. For these reasons, the State law did not represent a
      conservation victory for the turtles.

  • Brainpicnic

    There’s plenty of food available at the supermarket no need to go out and kill these peaceful beautiful creatures. The sustenance argument is a pathetic excuse to kill something; man, find another hobby, don’t you think those attitudes need to be let go of? Why some people always looking to destroy things, evolve already!

  • jo

    do any of u know how much green sea turtles there are out there?more than enough.
    they should be on the hunting list but with restrictions and tags.and one more thing,who gives a flying f*** about the visitors.its not about them its about us.

    • Brainpicnic

      There’s a few Honu out there that might disagree with who you think this is all about human!

  • jo

    we hungry!!!

  • hawaiiansupaman

    When it was legal, I took turtle to feed my family. I only took what we could eat and caught them by grabbing them with my bare hands. There were others who slaughtered them for restaurants by using a bang stick or powerhead and blowing them in the head. It was sickening to see a truck load of 20 to 30 turtles with their heads bown out.
    I still capture turtles but with a camera now. There are other things that I can eat.

  • George Balazs

    Dear Readers of MauiNow: The following information will prove useful in clarifying the purpose of the USA Endangered Species Act in serving as an “Emergency Room” for species with serious survival issues. Aloha, George Balazs

    Purpose of the Endangered Species Act: The Endangered Species Act (ESA) is
    intended to conserve endangered and threatened species and their habitats and
    to improve the species’ status so that they no longer need ESA protection. When
    their recovery has progressed to that point, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
    (USFWS) takes steps to delist, or remove, the species from the federal list of
    Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants. If the species had been listed
    as endangered, the USFWS sometimes reclassifies it to threatened status as an
    intermediate step toward removal of ESA protection. Once a species is removed
    from the federal list, management authority for the species generally returns
    to the states and tribes that have jurisdiction over the areas that the species

    The ESA should be thought of as an emergency room for species; it provides
    emergency temporary care to ensure the species’ survival and to pull it back
    from the brink of extinction. Hopefully, once species are listed as threatened
    or endangered the resulting intensive care they receive under the ESA leads to
    a “recovery” to the extent that the species can be moved back to the more
    routine care and management of the states and tribes. The species can be
    delisted at that point. “Recovery” under the ESA doesn’t mean that the species
    must be back to full health – restored to its past population level or
    throughout its historical range – before it can be delisted. Rather, “recovery”
    under the ESA means that the species no longer needs ESA’s emergency care to
    keep it from becoming extinct in the foreseeable future.

    Post-delisting Monitoring

    As additional insurance to protect species that might have been delisted
    prematurely, the *ESA requires that delisted species be monitored for at least
    five years*. If monitoring indicates that the delisting was premature, the
    USFWS can relist the species, even on an emergency basis, to protect the
    species under the ESA. Emergency listings can be completed in a matter of weeks
    and take effect as soon as the relisting notice appears in the Federal
    Register. They provide full, but short-term, protection by the ESA while the
    USFWS determines if relisting is needed.

  • kmcares

    “Some Hawaii residents fondly recall when the
    turtles provided meat for their tables – and would like to be allowed to hunt
    them again.” A relative of mine is truly “African” American –
    some Kenyans may “fondly recall” when they got to hunt and kill
    cheetah, lions, zebra, etc. etc. for their pelts for decorative clothing and “would like to be
    allowed to hunt them again”. Do we as humans only want to be able to pass on
    our cultural heritage by trips to zoos and aquariums or more sadly – by photos of what used to be? Who will be the voice
    for those creatures that have no voice?

  • http://www.facebook.com/lobolady Barbara Rocco

    Love this quote: “…the honu gives us sustenance,” said Charles Kaaiai. Well, Charles, the hunt has been banned since 1978 and you’re still alive, so I guess you got your “sustenance” somewhere else. Find a better excuse and let the turtles live in peace!

  • Maui_Mike

    If you so hungry that you want to eat a honu go eat one pig or deer, they hurt the aina, let the peaceful honu be.

  • brokenbutcher

    Hunting the turtles based on heritage,tradition etc, makes about as much sense as firing up Whaling again. Move on and grow up. The reputation of the Islands will be hurt when mainland vacationers get wind of this, or when any visitor gets wind of this plan, you can bet they will protest in the form of finding another place to vacation. The turtles are a huge draw for tourism and to hunt them would surely be cutting our own throats revenue wise. You feel the need to kill something? try Deer.

  • mommy turtle


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