Rare birth on Kauai

Although historically rare around the main Hawaiian Islands, as many as 70 monk seals may be scattered along the coasts of Hawaii, Oahu, Maui and Kauai, according to sources at the National Marine Fisheries Service (see TMG 3:1, Monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands).

A monk seal birth on a popular tourist beach on Kauai on 6 July served to focus public attention on the species’ tenuous hold on these heavily exploited island shores, and on the risks of harassment from curious onlookers. The pup, born in front of the lifeguard station at Poipu Beach Park, was only the fourth known monk seal birth on Kauai in the last decade. Since none of the previous offspring survived, local conservationists were keen to maximise security for both mother and pup. The last known Kauai pup was born on a heavily symbolic 4 July 1999, but was later found dead under mysterious circumstances (TMG 3:1,
Fourth of July pup probably killed by boat).

Kauai Monk Seal Watch posted volunteers to shield the animals from disturbance, both from human onlookers and dogs. However, according to unconfirmed reports, camera flashes disturbed the mother while suckling her pup.

Other sources of harassment were averted at the eleventh hour. Following some bad publicity, the Kauai Surfing Association reluctantly agreed to move its planned body-boarding, swimming, and canoeing festival – expected to draw 1500 people to the beach – to an alternative location.

Meanwhile, environmental critics believe there can be little chance for the endangered monk seal to recolonise the main Hawaiian Islands while the species comes in a poor second to tourism, development and military interests. In July it was announced that the US Navy was seeking a second 5 year permit to blast the undersea environment north of Kauai with high intensity sound. Ecologists have voiced concern that such experiments may pose dangers for marine mammals, particularly those that rely on echolocation.

Harassment continues on Maui

While official efforts are being stepped up to learn more about the distribution of the species around the main Hawaiian Islands, intermittent reports continue to emerge of monk seals being harassed and persecuted – sometimes in ignorance, sometimes in malice.

In May this year, it was reported that a juvenile seal hauled out on a Maui beach was pelted with rocks by one youth, and surrounded by people posing for pictures.

According to one credible source, when a concerned neighbour berated the youth for his stone-throwing, the boy’s belligerent reply was: "Do you own the seal?"

Disturbing events of this type, say observers, are an indication that public awareness campaigns are currently failing to protect monk seals on the main Hawaiian Islands. Although it is technically a federal offence to come within a 100 feet (~ 30 metres) of a monk seal, the rarity of the animal has tended to act as an irresistible magnet to curious onlookers, both locals and tourists.

The most recent harassment incidents follow the notorious 1998 case of a Hawaiian man brought to trial for throwing stones and a coconut at the seal designated as Q39 – the first-known pup to be born on Maui, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service (see The life & times of Q39 and "He didn’t eat the seal, did he?"). The case attracted additional controversy when the judge hearing the case – reasoning that the perpetrator had not actually eaten the seal – imposed a $50 fine and a 100 hours community service – a sentence widely condemned as too lenient. Under state law, the maximum penalty would have been a one-year jail term and a $1,000 fine.

More leaking fuel for marine sanctuary

A long-line fishing vessel that ran aground on Pearl and Hermes Reef on World Environment Day (5 June) this year proceeded to leak 16,000 gallons of diesel fuel into the surrounding ocean. A similar incident in 1998 at Kure Atoll (TMG 2:1, The Old Woman Who Swallowed the Fly), also involving a fishing vessel, resulted in at least 4000 gallons of fuel being dumped. Both atolls lie in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and are important breeding sites for the Hawaiian monk seal. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) been at the brunt of criticism – and an Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund lawsuit – for mismanagement of the lobster and bottomfish fishery in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (TMG 3:1, NMFS policy on trial). Critics suspect that monk seals are starving to death in certain areas because of overfishing pressures.

NMFS ducks judgement

"The data strongly suggest that the fishery contributes to the starvation of the monk seals…"
– Federal District Court Judge Samuel King

Despite years of fending off criticisms of its fisheries policy in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, it appears that NMFS may now have buckled under the combined weight of shifting scientific opinion within its own ranks and legal action in federal court.

Just days before the judge hearing the case was due to rule on a preliminary injunction requesting such action, NMFS imposed a moratorium on lobster fishing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Environmentalists quickly hailed the decision as a victory. NMFS had recently become increasingly isolated in its attempts to maintain the lobster fishery, facing criticism from, among others, the Marine Mammal Commission and the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Team. Supporters of the ban, which is scheduled to extend throughout the year 2000 season, hope that the incidence of young seals starving to death, particularly at French Frigate Shoals, may diminish if the dwindling lobster population can begin to recover. Recent scientific research has suggested that weaned pups and juvenile monk seals inexperienced in catching faster prey may be particularly dependent on lobster as a source of nutrition.

The U.S. District Court Judge hearing the case against NMFS announced in his 5 June ruling that the injunction request was now moot given the agency’s voluntary moratorium. The Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, however, which was representing a coalition of environmental organisations in the case – including Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network – later announced that it would continue to act on its clients’ behalf in an attempt to secure longer-term protection for the Hawaiian monk seal.

According to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, the presiding judge voiced the opinion that Earthjustice would have won its court injunction if NMFS hadn’t voluntarily closed lobster fishing for the year. In his 30-page decision he went on to state, "The data strongly suggest that the fishery contributes to the starvation of the monk seals." He went on to warn NMFS that if it intends to lift the ban it must first notify the court.

As few as half a dozen fishing boats, accounting for roughly 45 crew, are thought to be affected by the NMFS decision. Most are expected to compensate for the seasonal loss of lobster earnings by increasing activities in other areas, such as longline fishing.

A few raucous voices did condemn the decision, mainly on the grounds of state interference. A gem of a letter published in Honolulu Star-Bulletin read in part:

"I don ’t believe government statistics; they’re all lies anyway. And none of these animals have helped me pay my bills. So to hell with them. We should shoot ’em, eat ’em and make shoes and jackets out of their skins."

Published sources
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 22 June 2000; 12 July 2000

Another lawsuit hooks NMFS

Another lawsuit was aimed at NMFS in July for allowing unregulated longline fishing in the Pacific, allegedly violating the Endangered Species Act. "A 60 Day Notice of Intent to Sue" was filed against NMFS and the Departments of Commerce and Interior on behalf of the Turtle Restoration Network, the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Recreational Fishing Alliance. The suit provides evidence that the longline fishery causes injuries and mortalities to several threatened and endangered species, including leatherback and loggerhead turtles, Hawaiian monk seals and the short-tailed albatross. The plaintiffs demanded NMFS action within 60 days to correct the alleged violations, and served notice that a failure to comply would result in NMFS being sued in Federal Court.

The longline fishing industry is already at the brunt of legal action in Federal Court. Federal District Judge David Ezra has ordered that every boat in Hawaii’s longline fishing fleet must carry a federal observer in an effort to cut interactions with threatened and endangered species. The ruling, originally to have been carried out within thirty days, was postponed in June to allow the government and industry sufficient time to comply. A shortage of trained observers is hampering compliance.

Meanwhile, Hawaiian monk seals continue to get snared on one type of hook or another, including those used in fishing from shore. In April this year it was reported that a monk seal born on Midway Atoll had been discovered at a beach on Molokai with a large fishing hook lodged in the base of its tongue. Although the adult female was expected to make a full recovery following extraction of the hook, concerns were raised about the potentially lethal impact that lost or discarded fishing hooks pose to monk seals in less favourable circumstances. At least seven Hawaiian monk seals have been reported with hooks lodged in their mouths around the main Hawaiian Islands of Maui, Oahu and Kauai since 1991, and some observers fear that these casualties may represent only the tip of the iceberg.

Published sources
MARMAM, 30 July 2000
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 27 June 2000
Kula Daily Planet 5 July 2000

Marine debris on the table

Marine debris continues to kill millions of seabirds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals every year. The problem is particularly acute in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where Hawaiian monk seals are at serious risk of drowning after entanglement in lost or dumped fishing gear. Coral reefs also face damage.

So far, more than 35 tons of ghost nets have been removed from Hawaiian reefs and shorelines, but according to NMFS estimates, 2000-3000 tons remain.

Because entangled seals may become shark bait before they can be counted by researchers, reliable estimates on mortality remain elusive. NMFS, however, is reported to have documented 196 deaths since 1982.

According to ideas presented at an August conference at the Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in Honolulu (International Marine Debris Conference on Derelict Fishing Gear and the Ocean Environment), clean-up efforts could be drastically improved with the deployment of high-tech sensing equipment. Such methods would see planes and satellites mapping marine debris by sensing its chemical or reflective signature. This, the NMFS reasons, would be a far more efficient approach in tackling the problem since all human and technical resources that are currently committed to finding marine debris could instead be channelled towards collection.

Preventive methods under discussion include mandatory tagging of fishing nets to permit identification of offenders.

Some critics, however, remain unconvinced, reasoning that such methods were already abandoned in the 1980s because of lack of international agreements on reporting, enforcement and penalties.

The fact that much of the debris plaguing the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands is being washed in from the far afield is fuelling calls for an international solution to the problem. The Honolulu conference went some way towards addressing that issue with participation from of the Pacific Rim culprit nations, including Japan, Russia and the United States.

For detailed background information on the conference and the marine debris crisis, check out the following website: http://www.hihwnms.nos.noaa.gov


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