County lifeguards perform double duty: Saving lives, protecting Monk Seals

Kaua’i County lifeguards at Po’ipu Beach Park are having a tougher time performing their jobs with the departure of a government-funded coordinator assigned to care for endangered Hawaiian monk seals off Kaua’i, lifeguard officials say.

Lifeguards are primarily tasked with preventing drownings and watching out for the safety of beachgoers.

Now, they are monitoring the activities of the seals, setting up protective barriers and shooing away overzealous visitors at the county park and on beaches fronting Po’ipu coastline hotels, which are beyond the county’s jurisdiction.

The situation raises the risk for drownings at one of Kaua’i’s most popular beaches, drawing hundreds of visitors and residents daily, say Kaleo Ho’okano, a co-supervisor for the county lifeguard division, and Po’ipu Beach lifeguard Myles Emura.

“Our main concern is that the seals are preventing our lifeguards from doing their jobs,” Emura said.

Emura said it was his understanding that Kaua’i is home to about 30 seals, up from previous years. Between one to three seals come to Po’ipu Beach each day, depriving beachgoers the use of areas that are roped off for them, Emura said, adding “it is getting worse.”

Emura said it seems beachings by seals have become more common because they know they will be resting in protected surroundings.

Emura and Ho’okano said they are sensitive to the need to protect the species, but lifeguards have a more important task of protecting people from the dangers of the ocean.

Keeping track of the seals at Po’ipu Beach and at adjoining beaches wasn’t so much of a problem before, but it has become one because the “federal guy is gone now,” Emura said.

Toward the end of last year, Shawn Farry was hired as the Hawaiian Monk seal coordinator for Kaua’i by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Farry was charged with managing monk seal “haul outs,” situations where a seal comes to shore to rest and warm up.

Late last year, Farry had responded to 19 haul outs with the help of several agencies and organizations.

Farry also was tasked to respond to reports of injured seals and to help set up protective zones for seals using signs and lightweight fences, and to write reports on seals and using digital photography to record markings to help track and study seals.

The coordinator also served as a contact person for county agencies, hotels and coastline property owners and groups promoting the preservation of the seals.

Following three months of work and no funding available to retain him, Farry left the job in January, slowing efforts to help with the repopulation of the seals on Kaua’i, one DLNR official said.

Farry has taken another NOAA job to conduct research on seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, according to Dr. Jeffrey S. Walters, co-manager of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary with DLNR.

“He is such a good field biologist that they needed him to study the population up there,” Walters said.

Walters said it was his understanding that NOAA may try to secure more funding from Congress to hire another coordinator for Kaua’i.

“Late April or early May, that is my hope,” Walters said. “We would like to get somebody back and rolling over there (on Kaua’i).”

There was no funding for the original program, but Dr. Charles Karnella at the NOAA office on O’ahu found funds from other sources to make the joint DLNR and NOAA program on Kaua’i a reality, Walters said.

“Dr. Karnella responded to community concerns and made the extra effort to find the funding, and I certainly appreciate that,” Walters said.

Farry could be hired for the same position, although that is not a certainty, Walters said.

Walters said it is the goal of government agencies involved with the protection of the seals to have a coordinator hired by the summer, Walters said. That seems be the peak time for the birth of seals whose well-being could be enhanced with a coordinator on board, Walters said.

Even with that coordinator hired, volunteers and community residents will continue to play a significant role in helping to preserve the seals, Walters said.

Efforts at protecting the seals have been successful mainly because of the work of lifeguards, volunteers with the Kaua’i Monk Seal Watch Program, interested residents and Po’ipu hotel operators and staffers, Walters said.

“They have been very helpful, and have shown the initiative to protect the seals and people at the same time,” Waters said.

Walters also said he sympathizes with the extra duty the lifeguards are pulling to monitor the seals. He said he is concerned the extra attention they may give to seals may compromise their “attention given to swimmers.”

“So far, I don’t think that has been a problem, but we don’t want an incident,” Walters said.

Kaua’i County Fire Department Administrative Battalion Chief Dave Walker, who heads the lifeguard division, said, “we need to have the lifeguards watch the beach. That is the name of the game.”

With regard to protecting the seals, the lifeguards have warned people not to get too close to the mammals or risk getting bitten, Walker said.

The lifeguards also have closed off beach areas where the seals have beached, Walker said, adding “that is the public safety side of it.”

In helping with the recovery of the seals, the county has worked with the volunteer seal group, which has been headed by Barbara Frazier at times, to respond to nursing pups on the beach.

Walker said the county will strive to work with the DLNR, other government agencies and the volunteer group on a solution that will allow lifeguards to go back to the business of protecting lives and will address the needs of the seals.

“Whatever it takes,” Walker said. “It is not something that can be ignored.”

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