Cover Story

Cute with Consequences

On the brink of extinction, monk seals are seen as a threat by Isle fishers

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Cover image for Sep 28, 2011

With their big, glistening eyes and round heads, whiskered smiles and hand-like flippers, Hawaiian monk seals–on the federal endangered species list since 1976–make for a winsome poster child.


Since the early 1990s, when sightings of the rare creatures became a regular appearance throughout the inhabited Hawaiian Islands, tourists have flocked to take their pictures. Monk seal images now adorn magazines, postcards, T-shirts and caps. Diligent volunteers erect barrier ropes around sun-bathing seals, track their movements and guard their pups.

Still, not everyone has warm, fuzzy feelings toward the state’s official mammal. In meetings held recently around the state, commercial, recreational and subsistence fishers and other ocean users made it clear they’re running short of aloha for the rapidly dwindling species, primarily because they’re worried about how federal plans to save it may impact them.

“When people get upset over here, they’re gonna kill ‘em, and that’s a fact, bottom line,” testified Kauai resident Kalani Kapuniai at a Sept. 17 hearing on a draft programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) that calls for temporarily moving young seals from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to undisclosed sites in the main Islands. Two monk seals were shot on Kauai in 2009, “and we were told that there were others that were never reported,” said Carl Berg, a member of Surfrider Foundation’s Kauai chapter.

The Kauai meeting was one of many that local fishers and ocean users have been attending over the past year in response to the PEIS and two separate proposals: one that designates critical habitat for the seals in the main Islands and another that expands the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary to include them.

Not in my house

Many residents express wariness of an expanded federal presence in Hawaii and what they see as a piecemeal approach that fails to consider the cumulative impact of all three proposals. They’re concerned that having more federally protected seals and waters around the main Islands will restict public access through beach and offshore closures. The seals, which can weigh from 400-600 pounds as adults and eat 3 to 8 percent of their body weight per day, and “have been known to eat catch from nets, and bait from fishing hooks,” according to an NOAA pamphlet, are also viewed as serious competition by fishers.

With the Sanctuary still in discussion stage, and the comment period closed for the critical habitat designation, ocean users are focusing their attention on the draft PEIS. The deadline for comments is Oct. 17.

At the Kauai hearing, Peter Lopez, who identified himself as a “commercial shoreline-type fisherman,” expressed a popular sentiment: “We’re concerned about regulation. Will we still be allowed to fish? Will we be required to have a federal marine license to fish in an area? When I ask [NOAA], there’s no definite answers at this point in time.”

Jeff Walters, marine mammals branch chief for NOAA, tried to offer reassurances during the hearing. “We are not proposing any new regulations or restrictions. We’re heading in a totally different direction of coexistence. We’re not going to close off the whole beach when [seals] come ashore. We’ll do minimal fencing, and it will be taken down as soon as possible. This plan is about managing monk seals, not managing people.”

Kauai resident Kawika Cutcher was unconvinced. “I don’t support any federal intrusion into any of our fishing, gathering or cultural rights,” he said. “Any time foreign environmental concepts are introduced into Hawaii, it damages our culture.”

Conservationists, too, expressed concerns. Berg, testifying on behalf of Surfrider, said the PEIS fails to “fully address all the cumulative impacts being put on us at this time and does not adequately address environmental justice issues, especially for subsistence fishermen.”

Michael Drake, who identified himself as “Native American, Native Hawaiian,” put it more bluntly. “If you ask permission to come to my house and I say no, the answer is no. That’s what the majority of Kauai is saying. You say you don’t want to do anything the community doesn’t want. Well, listen to us. We’ve been testifying in writing and voice: we don’t want them here.”

Better odds in Hawaii Nei

The main Hawaiian Islands is the only place where the seals seem to have a chance to survive. Just 1,100 seals remain on the planet, with an estimated 200 in the main Islands. Aside from 20 males brought down from the NWHI in 1994, Walters said, this population has been growing naturally, as a result of “pioneering females” making the trip from NWHI themselves, and bearing pups.

The remaining 900 monk seals reside in the NWHI, where their numbers are plummeting. “In the last ten years, we have lost 40 percent of the population,” Walters said. “If we don’t take action, the population in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands will continue to crash and the population in the main Islands will continue to slowly grow.”

That’s because seals born in the main Islands have an 80 percent survival rate, compared to an 80 percent mortality rate in the NWHI, said Charles Littnan, lead scientist for the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Hawaiian monk seal research program.

Out of whack ecosystem

Federal scientists blame the disparity on a severely unbalanced ecosystem in the NWHI, which has suffered a century of abuse, ranging from guano mining and feather hunting to military activities and marine debris buildup. Although the area is now partially protected as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, scientists say it’s top-heavy with predators like Galapagos sharks and big ulua, which are far more adept than young seals at catching the prey all three species target. To bolster that claim, Walters played a short video clip at the Kauai PEIS hearing of a shark apparently trying to steal a reef fish from a seal in the NWHI.

Gordon LaBedz, a retired family physician, questioned that assumption in his testimony at the hearing. “I have to think the seals are going extinct because of NOAA allowing fishermen to rape and scrape the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and steal all their food,” LaBedz said.

Interviewed later, Marti Townsend, executive director of KAHEA, a Hawaiian environmental alliance, agreed. “Large-scale commercial fisheries are the reason the monk seals are now starving, because lobsters are no longer as abundant.” NWHI is currently closed to all fishing, “If we had handled regulating fisheries better back then, we wouldn’t be having these problems now,” Townsend said.

To help stave off starvation, scientists want to transport newly weaned female seal pups from NWHI to the main Islands, where there’s reportedly more food and fewer predators, so they can fatten up for three years before being rounded up and returned to their birthplace. “It’s a temporary thing,” Walters explained. “The whole point of this is to put healthy females in the bank in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.” They plan to start with 10 seals, and if the project proves successful, more will be brought down, with a maximum of 60 transplants at any one time in the main Islands. The cost, over five years, is estimated at $14.1 million.

Predator vs predator

Local fishermen have a different solution: let them go up to the NWHI to cull the sharks and 100-pound ulua. That way, they reason, they get food and the seals get to stay put. Townsend supports that concept, saying federal scientists have tried and failed to catch sharks, which are also beginning to starve because their population is artificially inflated.

“Why not engage your fishing community to do what they’re good at?” she suggested. “They could try to retrofit the fishing vessels to collect [marine] debris while they’re up there.”

While federal scientists haven’t rejected the culling idea outright, “we’re not ready to bring it forward,” Walters said at the PEIS hearing. “We looked closely at fishing down ulua and sharks, but we don’t have any information to predict what would happen if we knocked down all the predators.”

In response, Kauai resident Thomas Mizo pointed out, “You don’t know what the impact will be and the kinds of fish that might decline here because of the seal introductions.”

In the main islands, according to the draft PEIS, “changes in the population of fish popular among subsistence fishers or the quantity of catch for subsistence purposes are not likely to occur,” and much of the fish consumed by the translocated seals “would likely be species or in areas not shared with subsistence fishers.”

Also subject to debate is whether the seals will stay on plan. Fishers and ocean users question whether the creatures realistically could be rounded up when it’s time to go home, or wouldn’t simply swim right back after being dropped off in the NWHI. Walters said he believed the animals could be recaptured because they’re so closely monitored. Still, two pup-killing males slated for termination in the NWHI this year managed to elude their executioners. Although scientists have translocated about 250 seals over the years, including four incorrigibles exiled to Johnson Atoll, most of the moves have covered only short distances on or between atolls in the NWHI. It’s unclear how the animals will fare on a seven-day boat trip between the main and northwestern islands. “Abducting these animals out of their neighborhoods is cruel,” LaBedz said. “These are highly intelligent, sentient creatures. They have a right to live in their home.”

Littnan expressed more worry about the return trip. “There’s no concern about moving the weaners down, because they have lots of fat and can live off that,” he said. “They’re very adaptable and curious. We’re more concerned about the juveniles, bringing them back up. Like any mammals, they could get very stressed. That’s when they might start banging against their cages and sustain injuries, or even have a heart attack.”

But in his comments to the crowd, Walters downplayed the risks. “They’re very durable animals,” he said. “They’re not fragile and they can handle the translocation well.”

Bad science?

Concerns also have been raised about whether seals might be exposed to more toxins and diseases around the main Islands, or bring transmissible diseases with them. Meanwhile, scientists want to administer worming medications, antibiotics, vaccines and other drugs to seals in both the main and northwestern islands. “Worm medicine helps them put on weight better and get a little bit stronger,” Walters said, but one reference in the draft PEIS found the treatment to be ineffective. Berg, a marine biologist, and LaBedz objected to the use of drugs and human vaccines on monk seals, citing unknown risks.

Plans also call for training seals to stay away from boat ramps, harbors and fishing gear through the use of loud noises, electric shocks and other hazing techniques, as well as euthanasia of aggressive, unruly males.

Whether despite or because of the monk seal management plans described in the PEIS and the other two NOAA proposals, several at the meeting expressed doubt that the agency’s new actions will be any more effective than its past efforts to save the seals.

“They’re failing to just admit it, that their management has added to the decline of monk seals,” said one conservationist who asked not to be named. Added another observer who requested anonymity, “Over the 25 years that NOAA has been intensively managing these animals, their numbers have steadily declined.”

Undocumented Natives

Hawaiian monk seals, believed to be the oldest of all fin-footed animal species, were first described by a German scientist who found a skull on the NWHI’s Laysan Island in 1899. Despite the species’ designation as the official state mammal, there’s a dispute as to whether the seals are native to the main Hawaiian islands.

“The idea that it’s a native is based on a lie perpetuated by certain environmental groups,” said Kawika Cutcher, a Native Hawaiian resident of Kauai, noting that the seals are not mentioned in the chant of creation or named as aumakua or ancestral spirits; nor are there any wood carvings, petroglyphs, oli, mele, medicinal uses or other traditional cultural references to the seals.

Some scientists speculate that the earliest Polynesians quickly exterminated the animals from the main Islands, before they became part of the culture. “We believe that seals have always been in the main islands, just at very low numbers where people haven’t seen them,” said Jeff Walters of NOAA. “We have very well-documented sightings of seals going back to the 1800s.”

Critical coexistence

Despite the controversy over federal management plans, “This shouldn’t be viewed as a zero-sum game, that protecting seals is somehow a death knell [for fishermen],” cautions Marti Townsend of KAHEA, which has joined with the Center for Biological Diversity in petitioning the National Marine Fisheries Service to protect shorelines and nearshore waters in the main Hawaiian Islands as critical habitat for monk seals. “Fishers will enjoy the same benefits as monk seals,” Townsend said, explaining that a critical habitat designation affects only the development of federal projects, and has absolutely no impact on recreational and subsistence access to beaches.