Monday, May 16, 2011


Should the precautionary principle apply to threatened marine species?

By Henry Curtis

Hawai`i has three major types of reef systems: the common shallow water fringing systems located makai of many shoreline, deep fore reefs located on steep marine slopes, and relatively flat deep water reef systems located on undersea plateaus (mesotrophic reefs).

Penguin Bank is located on a submerged volcano off the southwestern coast of Moloka`i. The reef is about 27 miles long, 10 miles wide, and has a depth of 50-300 feet with steep sides dropping off to depths of 1800-2400 feet.

The Moloka`i fringing reef is located between Penguin Bank and Moloka`i. It is the most extensive fringing reef in the Main Hawaiian Islands. The Humpback Whale Sanctuary is located between Penguin Bank and Lana`i.

Ahupua`a go from the mountain top to the far end of reefs. State waters only extend three miles from the shore. Thus part of the ahupua`a system which include Penguin Bank extends beyond state waters into federal waters.

Penguin Bank is the only mesotrophic structure (large, flat, submerged bank or platform) in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Mesophotic coral ecosystems (MCEs) are light-dependent coral communities that exist in the lower half of the photic zone (the twilight zone), on relatively flat reef structures at a depth of 120-450 feet below the surface.

Penguin Bank is home to the largest concentrations of Koholā (humpback whales) and cow/calf pairs. The Penguin Bank ecosystem plays a critical role for other whales, dolphins, monk seals (ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua), turtles, and fish. It serves as one of the premier fishing areas within Hawai`i.

Maps located within the Big Wind EIS show that the cable will go through both Penguin Bank and the Humpback Whale Sanctuary.

The EIS mentions the Humpback Whale Sanctuary by name: “The cable component of the proposed program would take place in waters protected under the National Marine Sanctuary System.”

However the EIS does not mention Penguin Bank by name. The document does seem to reference this area indirectly: "One of the major issues to be addressed will be the location of deepwater corals that are believed to occur in the area." (p.3-18)

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is an attached agency to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They wrote on February 28, 2011: “The acoustic impacts from installing the cable would occur from the proposal to bury it in the seafloor rather than laying it along the bottom. ...The acoustic impacts could also disrupt the foraging behaviors of the Hawaiian monk seal, a critically endangered species whose population numbers are still declining. Penguin Bank is known to be a primary foraging area for the seal, and many seals have been documented to use the shoreline areas of nearby La`au Point and `Ilio Point ... Studies conducted on a similar power cable installation in the waters off of Scotland demonstrated that certain species of fish were attracted to the power cable. ... Other species may be repelled by the electromagnetic fields, including prey fish that protected marine species depend upon for food. It is possible that the power cable could affect the navigational and homing abilities of sea turtles, which use Earth’s electromagnetic fields to locate and return to their nesting sites. ... The current method for installing underwater cables include ... directional drilling. These methods can permanently damage coral reef ecosystems. Altering the geomorphology of coastal habitats can increase sedimentation and shoreline erosion. ... We advice a precautionary approach

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Henry Curtis


Those of you who might be interested in a discussion of the PP and its ethical basis that takes into account that, obviously, precaution always has a price may want to have a look at my new book The Price of Precaution and the Ethics of Risk:

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