Luxury Hawaiian Resort in Legal Trouble Over Seabird Deaths

LIHUE, Kauai, March 3, 2010 (ENS) – Four conservation groups today advised the St. Regis Princeville Resort on Kauai’s North Shore of their intent to sue over the resort’s failure to prevent the deaths of rare native seabirds, in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act.

The St. Regis is owned by Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which also owns the Westin, Sheraton, Four Points by Sheraton, W Hotels, and Le Meridien brands.

During the fledging season from late September to early December, critically imperiled Newell’s shearwaters and Hawaiian petrels heading to sea are attracted to bright lights in and around the resort. The building is located on a coastal bluff in an otherwise dark part of the North Shore that is an important seabird flyway.

Trapped in the lights’ glare, the confused birds circle until they fall exhausted to the ground or strike the resort’s buildings.

St. Regis Princeville on Kauai’s North Shore (Photo by Lesleeann74)

The Hawaii-based groups Hui Ho’omalu i Ka ‘Aina and Conservation Council for Hawaii, as well as the mainland-based Center for Biological Diversity and American Bird Conservancy, are represented in the legal action by the public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice.

Earthjustice attorney David Henkin said the St. Regis has failed to seek an incidental take permit, as required by law, claiming that it is waiting for the State of Hawaii’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife to prepare an island-wide plan for Kauai, which is not expected to be completed for another two years

“As a multi-billion dollar corporation that is single-handedly responsible for a quarter of the bird deaths, Starwood should not be asking Hawaii’s taxpayers to foot the bill for coming up with a plan for the St. Regis,” Henkin said.

Henkin said the St. Regis should apply for its own permit, which would require implementing effective measures to reduce the number of seabirds the resort kills each year, as well as efforts to offset unavoidable harm by helping to protect seabird nesting colonies from predators such as pigs, rats and cats.

“In the absence of any enforcement by the state or federal governments, St. Regis has had no incentive to comply with the law, because the cost of non-compliance has been zero,” Henkin said.

Data from the Save Our Shearwaters program indicate that, from 2000 to 2008, over one-quarter of the total number of shearwaters downed by artificial lights on Kauai went down at that one resort.

Hawaiian petrel (Photo by Matt Brady)

The Newell’s shearwater, Puffinus newelli, is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands as a breeding bird. Outside the breeding season it disperses into the tropical Pacific Ocean. Its population is declining and it is classed as an endangered species by BirdLife International.

Also endemic to the islands, the Hawaiian petrel, Pterodroma sanwicdhensis, is an endangered species. On Kauai, only 1,600 breeding pairs remain, and BirdLife International advises that to avoid more losses, lighting must not be allowed to attract petrels.

Save Our Shearwaters data for the 2009 season show more than 60 endangered seabirds came down at the St. Regis in 2009, even though the resort just completed a $100 million renovation that reportedly included lighting changes. The resort is responsible for the greatest number of deaths and injuries of imperiled seabirds on Kauai due to artificial lights.

During a 2009 tour, hotel representatives claimed that to protect the birds, the resort was dimming interior lights, lowering polarizing window shades to minimize light visible from the exterior and keeping pool lights off.

Yet, one week after those assurances, a site inspection on the night of October’s new moon, when fledging seabirds are particularly vulnerable to the attraction of artificial lights, revealed that none of these measures was being implemented.

“I asked a resort employee why nothing was being done for the birds and was told that, to improve the guest experience, they were under orders to keep the lights on and the shades up,” said Maka’ala Kaaumoana of the Kauai-based Hui Ho’omalu i Ka ‘Aina.

Newel’s shearwater (Photo by Eimiko)

“It’s outrageous that, even when they know the community is watching, the resort so blatantly ignores its kuleana (duty) to stop killing our native seabirds,” she said.

“Starwood knew about this problem when it purchased the resort,” said American Bird Conservancy’s George Wallace. “It’s a multi-billion dollar corporation. It easily could take common sense steps to protect the birds, such as installing motion detectors to keep outside lights from burning all night while its guests are asleep, and repainting its brightly colored buildings in darker tones to be less reflective. Instead, it has taken only token measures that are ineffective.”

Birds hitting power lines of the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative is another major cause of rare bird mortality, and the same four groups sent a notice of intent to sue the power utility on January 20.

“The Newell’s population has crashed by 75 percent in only the past 15 years,” said Kauai resident and biologist Don Heacock, a member of Conservation Council for Hawaii. “It can’t afford to keep taking these major hits, suffering this high mortality, year after year. We need to be promoting sustainable development on Kauai.”

“Doing nothing risks pushing Kauai’s seabirds to extinction,” Henkin explained. “We’re sending a strong message that business as usual is no longer acceptable.”

Jeff Chandler of Hui Ho’omalu i Ka ‘Aina said losing the birds would create a significant gap in Native Hawaiian culture.

“Since the ‘a’o (Newell’s shearwater) nest in the mountains and live at sea, they remind us that everything is connected,” said Chandler, a Kauai fisherman. “We look to those birds to help us find fish, something we’ve been doing since ancient times.”

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