Reward for monk seal killer increases

LIHU‘E — An anonymous donor has pledged $10,000 to Surfrider Foundation in an effort to help indict the killers of the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals found dead last year on the Westside of Kaua‘i and on Moloka‘i.

A total of $5,000 will be rewarded to anyone who has information which could lead to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) involved in slaying the male monk seal discovered floating in the waters off Kaunakakai on Dec. 14. Some $7,000 will now be offered to those with information regarding the male seal discovered dead April 19 at Kaumakani, in addition to the $5,000 reward put up last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“There are people out there who are still really mad that somebody’s doing this and they’re willing to give big money to resolve this,” said Kaua‘i Surfrider’s Carl Berg on Wednesday. “We really want to find out what’s going on and we really want people to understand these are nature’s creatures.”

Only an estimated 1,100 monk seals remain throughout the Hawaiian archipelago, but only 115 actually traverse the main islands, NOAA Marine Mammal Response Coordinator David Schofield said Wednesday.

Arriving in Hawai‘i millions of years before humans, a “large seal kill off” in the 1800s is likely thought to have devastated their population. Only within the last 20 years have they begun to recover — in small numbers, he said.

Physical evidence of their prior existence include bones found at Lapakahi State Historical Park on the Big Island and tombs made with their bones dating as far back as the 1400s, he said.

While the federal government and nonprofit organizations have their own initiatives as far as offering rewards are concerned, hurting animals that can’t defend themselves can really rouse emotion within the community, Schofield said when asked why there has been such an emphasis in finding those guilty of the crimes.

Earl Miyamoto, life-long fisherman and incidental take permit coordinator for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said he is familiar with the resistance to accept the re-emergence of monk seals.

Miyamoto, born and raised on the islands, said he never even came across the creatures in Hawai‘i waters until recently. Because their small recovery is coinciding with the rapid decline in fish, they are “very convenient to blame.”

“The fisheries have been going down for a long time” and it didn’t just happen since the monk seals started returning, he said Wednesday.

“It’s not the seals overfishing, it’s us,” he said. “There aren’t any fish around anymore.”

An advocate for fishermen, Miyamoto said he “understands the resistance,” but also believes there is a way to coexist and one of his responsibilities is reducing and mitigating interactions with endangered species.

The shoreline is where “most interactions are occurring” and fishermen often feel their rights are being infringed upon, he said.

If changes are not made and responsibility is not taken, Miyamoto said he is afraid his grandchildren might no longer be able to enjoy the privilege of fishing Hawai‘i’s shorelines.

“Opinions can be wildly exaggerated,” he added, citing that one belief is seals eat their weight in fish every day.

Not true, Schofield said. They eat around 3 to 8 percent of their body weight.

“They’re only eating about 10 to 20 pounds of seafood a day,” Schofield said, adding that their weight ranges from around 300 to 400 pounds. In addition, their diet includes not only shoreline fish, but “a lot of other things deeper and farther off shore.”

A “worldwide degradation to our fisheries” is the ultimate problem, along with fishery management and overfishing, he said.

“We shouldn’t blame the monk seal for lack of fish in an area,” he said.

Kumu Sabra Kauka, a Kaua‘i native practitioner, said she is still confused about the recent activities surrounding the deaths of the Hawaiian monk seals.

“The seals have been in the ocean longer than we’ve been walking on the earth,” she said Wednesday. “This is something that we as humans need to acknowledge —  the fact that we’re not the only species on the earth.”

Humans are supposed to have intelligence, thoughtfulness and control of our behavior, but we are not demonstrating this by killing defenseless creatures “placed on this earth” too, she said.

“Malama the monk seal,” Schofield agreed. “Recognize they are the kama‘aina of the sea.”

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