For Hawaiian Sea Turtles, a Last Resort?

On the Big Island of Hawaii, the black sand beach at Punalu"u in the rural district of Kau is renowned as much for its dramatic beauty as it is for the giant sea turtles that return each year to nest there. But Sea Mountain Five LLC, a collaboration of California and Big Island investors, recently proposed building a 2,000-unit resort complex on the beach, and environmentalists fear this could spell trouble for critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles.

Hawaii"s beautiful Punalu"u beach, an important nesting place for hawksbill sea turtles (below), is the site of a proposed development that alarms greens.© HAWAII VISITORS AND CONVENTION BUREAU

Larry Katahira, natural resources project manager at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park and director of the Hawksbill Recovery Project, is among those concerned about the proposal. "Because the turtles are so rare," explains Katahira, "they come up to nest and people don’t know that they are there." National Park crews have tagged only 70 nesting female hawksbills on the Big Island since 1991.

County Councilman Bob Jacobson, who represents the district of Kau, is also concerned about development at Punalu"u. "The beach is not a resource that is to be exploited," he explains. "It’s for everybody to enjoy." He added that his stance on the proposed project will be determined by the behavior of the developers.

George Atta of Group 70, the design firm employed by Sea Mountain, has assured local residents that Punalu"u’s unique ecosystem will be protected and that an environmental impact statement is forthcoming. Current plans for Sea Mountain, however, include estate dwellings along the coastline and a golf course extension with holes directly on the beach. These projects could spell disaster for nesting hawksbills and their hatchlings, warn environmentalists. Lights and people on the beach could scare the adult turtles. Once the eggs are laid in the sand, people could inadvertently walk on the nests and crush the eggs. When the hatchlings emerge, the lights from the hotel could confuse them, encouraging the fragile babies to walk towards the hotel rather than entering the sea, leaving them vulnerable to birds, animals and the hot sun.

© HAWKSBILL RECOVERY PROJECT

One possible compromise between developers and the environment is to limit construction to areas away from the beach. But Atta says, "Zoned land close to the ocean is prime real estate in Hawaii. Developers are reluctant to lose this price differential, but at the same time, they understand the sensitive environmental issues we are facing."

Auntie Pele Hanoa, a Hawaiian elder and president of the Kau Preservation Society, sees a different future for Punalu"u Beach: an "eco-campus." Similar programs exist in Hawaii, including Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve on Oahu.

Hanoa’s daughter and former Kau Preservation president, Keola Hanoa, who passed away in early 2006, was also a strong advocate for preservation. For 17 years, Hanoa led educational programs in turtle conservation and Hawaiian culture at Punalu"u. Auntie Pele explains that the Hawaiian concept of malama, meaning protection and stewardship, provides the basis for these programs. "Malama is our way," she states.