Endangered turtles near road face risk of Kealia area traffic

Nonprofit urges community to protect special fence line

Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund Hawksbill Sea Turtle Recovery Project Coordinator Mandy Lloyd (left) and intern Mike Stone repair a section of turtle fencing Saturday morning at Kealia. The fencing made out of recycled plastics is designed to keep nesting turtles from getting hit by cars on North Kihei Road as they search for places to lay their eggs. An endangered hawksbill turtle full of eggs was once hit by a car and killed in the area. The fencing is frequently damaged, causing gaps that turtles can crawl through. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Endangered honu’ea risk being struck and killed by Maalaea vehicles if a shoreline turtle fence isn’t protected from human damage, community groups say.

The approximately 1.5-mile stretch of special fencing on Kealia Coastal Strand isn’t necessarily about keeping humans out — it’s about keeping rare hawksbill turtles and their key habitat in, according to the leader of a local nonprofit.

“All of us understand that there’s sensitivity, especially in Hawaii, but all over, with beaches being cut off — we don’t want to cut off access to beaches,” Hannah Bernard, Hawai’i Wildlife Fund executive director, said Tuesday. “We are not trying to stop foot access — we just don’t want people to drive their cars down onto the beach and break the fence in order to do it.”

Her nonprofit has worked with U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services, which constructed the turtle fence in the 1990s, to protect the area’s wildlife and habitat for more than two decades.

Lately vehicles have been “ramming” the turtle fence and breaking it, putting endangered hawksbill turtles and hatchlings at risk of wandering into fast-moving North Kihei Road traffic. Adding to the danger, it’s the middle of nesting season that runs from May through December, Bernard said.

Hannah Bernard, Hawai‘i Wildlife Fund co-founder and executive director, holds a pair of signs made by students of Roots School in Haiku. Bernard said she wants people to know the turtle fencing and boulders along the Kealia shoreline are not intended to keep people out; they are to keep nesting turtles from reaching the roadway. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

In 1993 and 1996, two hawksbill turtles in separate incidents were trying to cross North Kihei Road and were killed by vehicles. Graphic images were captured by The Maui News and printed in the newspaper.

“We spent that whole summer after that last mama was killed and we patrolled that beach with 150 volunteers to make sure no more females went out on that highway,” Bernard said. “We patrolled the beach to protect the females.”

The deaths, along with other hatchlings killed in subsequent years, launched the nonprofit’s Hawskbill Recovery Project, a partnership with Fish & Wildlife Services to systemically monitor and research the endangered hawksbill turtle, also known as honu’ea.

The project organizes volunteers who patrol the beaches nightly and help with the construction, maintenance and repair of the turtle fence to keep turtles off the road while supporting recovery of the eroded dune habitat. Bernard, a marine biologist, said native plants and wildlife need healthy habitat, so a holistic approach in protecting the dunes and the surrounding area was implemented.

At one point, signs were posted notifying people of the special fence and turtles possibly crossing the road, but Bernard said signage was stolen.

Now, it’s up to residents, community groups and others to step up protection, she said.

“That’s what kuleana is; it’s not like you put it down, right?” said Bernard. “When you take on your true, right livelihood, your true responsibility, you do get energy from it.”

She added that it is a challenge to operate on a small budget and manage beach walks at dawn, fence work on the weekend and camping overnight when turtles nest.

“It’s time I think for us to do a bit more of calling in the community to step up,” she said. “I think COVID really opened our eyes to how it could be, how it used to be. And we all have to step in and take responsibility for what we can do to hold onto the natural beauty that we have here.”

The Fish & Wildlife Services-constructed fence, which doesn’t limit or prevent foot access to the beach, covers shoreline from the Kealia Resort in North Kihei to Haycraft Park in Ma’alaea known as the Kealia Coastal Strand. It is located on an area of land owned by Mahi Pono, according to a news release.

In response to increasing threats for the nesting turtles in the area, Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, Fish & Wildlife Services, Mahi Pono and community groups, such as Ma’alaea Village Association, are collaborating on ways to ensure safety and protection, the news release said.

“We are in the process of executing the renewal of a Memorandum of Understanding with USFWS that will allow for continued access to the parcel of land for conservation management activities, which includes the installation and maintenance of the fence to protect both the turtles and the shoreline,” Shan Tsutsui, Mahi Pono chief operating officer, said in a statement Tuesday.

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services manages the adjacent Kealia Pond National Wildlife Refuge, which holds about 30 species of birds, including the endangered Hawaiian stilt and Hawaiian coot. The refuge has walking trails and a coastal boardwalk located in Maui’s largest lowland wetland — one of the one of the last remaining wetlands the state.

For information on the nonprofit, visit www.wildhawaii.org.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.


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