It’s been a skirmish for years. Casualties have been few but very costly. At stake is the propagation of some of Hawai‘i’s endangered sea turtles.
Kealia Beach is a favorite nesting spot for the Hawksbill turtle or Honu‘ea, but it can be a daunting place. The beach is just a few yards from North Kihei Road, where cars routinely reach speeds of 60 miles per hour. In the last 20 years, two turtles have died trying to cross the road.
Separating these critically endangered creatures from almost certain death is a deteriorating wooden slat and wire fence put in place 10 years ago as a temporary fix while landowner Alexander & Baldwin (A&B) drafted an agreement with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).
“Every year they say they are nearing an agreement to put up the [permanent] fence, but it never happens,” Cheryl King, of the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund (HWF), said. “We are just asking to put up the [permanent] fence for them.”
King added that her organization has a legion of volunteers standing by to do just that. Unfortunately, talks attempting to bring about a cooperative agreement between A&B and FWS have stalled every spring for the last four years. Nesting season runs from May to September.
“I am formally requesting that this situation be resolved as soon as possible,” Mayor Charmaine Tavares wrote to Alexander & Baldwin in May. “The Hawaii Wildlife Fund, The Department of Transportation, and the Department of Health, along with many concerned citizens are also willing to work with you on building the permanent fence which will provide necessary protection for the turtles as well as our citizens of Maui County.”
In response, A&B passed the buck.
“Given that this area is in the shoreline management area, the State Conservation District, and is adjacent to a National Wildlife Refuge, the most expeditious way to undertake construction of a fence on the property is for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to undertake the work, not A&B,” Jason Koga of A&B wrote to Tavares.
Koga went on to explain that in order for the work to be done, A&B must first enter into a cooperative agreement with FWS. Of course, this agreement has been drafted. And redrafted. And drafted again. For four years. Both sides cite legal technicalities in the holdup to any construction.
“It’s been mostly the wording of the agreement, such as indemnity clauses and liability issues,” A&B spokesperson Lind Howe said.
“I don’t put a time frame on it any more because I am always wrong,” Glynnis Nakai at FWS said.
What’s more, the Fish & Wildlife Service has a permanent fence. In fact, for the last three years they’ve been storing it in a shed less than a mile away from the beach. Made of a plastic composite, it promises to be practically indestructible, at least in comparison to the current barrier.
In the meantime, volunteers make nearly constant repairs on the ever-deteriorating current fence throughout nesting season.
At sunset one recent night, King took a walk along the beach. “It’s just frustrating,” she said. “We build the fence and then come back the next day and it’s been blown over.”
Not 10 feet from where she stood, King could see a pile of charred fence posts lay within a makeshift fire pit. According to King, it’s also common for people to drive over the fence to get their vehicles onto the beach.
FWS bought the temporary fence back in 1997. Maui Community Correctional Center inmates put it in place. Just keeping it in a semi-functional state has required an almost constant vigilance on the part of many.
The Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund formed 11 years ago after the second death of a Hawksbill on North Kihei Road led to a public outcry. Since then it has called for the protection of many of the state’s natural habitats and animals.
So far this year there have been no Hawksbills nesting on Kealia Beach, but the season is still young. Hawksbills have put down eggs here in nine of the past 16 seasons, making it the most frequently used spot on Maui.
The World Conservation Union considers Hawksbills to be critically endangered. Their shells and meat are very popular throughout the world and are often traded on the black market.
It’s estimated that there are just 80 Hawksbills in the entire state. A female typically nests twice in a season and can lie between one and 180 eggs. During the season, a mere one or two turtles will nest on Maui. If the eggs survive to hatch, the young turtles must make their way to the sea while avoiding an excess of hazards including humans, animals and bad navigation.
Typically, just one out of 10,000 eggs will survive to reproduce. A turtle reaches sexual maturity between 20 and 30 years of age. No one knows for sure what the lifespan of these turtles are but King and others believe they’re similar to green turtles, which can live 60 years.
As this article was going to press A&B and FWS suddenly announced that they had reached a new agreement that would be finalized this week. Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund officials remain skeptical.
“The agreement with A&B to resolve the new fence impasse has been said to be nearly complete each spring for at least the last four years,” the organization wrote in an April 19 letter to FWS. “Why has it been impossible to manage an agreement with A&B to enable resolution of this problem for the last ten years? Who will assume responsibility for another death on the highway, when materials to prevent the death have been stored on FWS property for the last 3 years?”
At this point, no one can say. HWF volunteers still plan to walk the beach, as they do every morning as part of their Dawn Patrol, looking for the tracks left by the Hawksbill’s alternating gait and checking on the fence. If they find a nest, they camp out, sleeping in shifts to watch over the eggs and ensure that when the turtles hatch they safely make it to the ocean.
After that, all they can do is hope.
To volunteer, contact the Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund at http://www.wildhawaii.org. MTW