Monk seal escapes sealed fate

LIHU‘E — A controversial decision by federal officials to “lethally remove” an adult Hawaiian monk seal that was attacking — and apparently killing — pups at Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands had to be put on hold: The seal was nowhere to be found.

“We have basically missed our opportunity for his removal for this year, and we will begin reviewing our options for dealing with his aggression for next year,” said Charles Littnan, head of the Hawaiian monk seal research program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Littnan said he spent about a week at Kure Atoll looking for seal KE18, “an 8- to 9-year-old male that attacked animals last year, and was far more aggressive this year.”

NOAA staff had observed KE18’s aggressive behavior in 2010, but this year the severity and frequency of his attacks increased. NOAA staff stationed at Kure Atoll observed nine seals on seven occasions between May 24 and July 28 being harassed by KE18. On another seven occasions, NOAA staff intervened to prevent KE18 from harming pups, according to a NOAA press release.

Kure Atoll has three islands, plus a vast amount of emergent reef, making it a “pretty wide area” to search, according to Littnan.

“We spotted KE18 three times but were never able to get an opportunity to capture him,” Littnan said. “The last two days we couldn’t find him at all so it is possible that he had gone out to sea to forage.”

With time running out, Littnan’s cruise had to depart to pick up the remainder of NOAA’s field staff stationed on other islands.

Meanwhile, KE18 gets to enjoy at least another year on the remote Kure Atoll.

KO42, a 5-year-old male, has also been observed to be aggressive toward other seals, according to NOAA. The aggressions were directed to four seals on five occasions between May 31 and June 19, and it included biting, harassing, mounting, scratching or chasing pups or holding them underwater.

“On another four occasions, KO42 made directed approaches towards pups but field staff intervened in these instances to prevent additional harm,” NOAA stated in a press release. “This is the first field season staff have observed KO42’s direct aggression towards pups. Two of the victims injured were also observed being attacked by KE18.”

‘Lethal removal’

“How many dead pups do we tally up before we take action?” Littnan said.

NOAA announced last week that it would “euthanize” at least one — and possibly two — adult male seals at Kure Atoll.

“At least two pups, but the latest count puts it closer to four pups, have died after receiving severe wounds that turned into abscesses,” Littnan said of the “two extremely aggressive males that have been attacking pups and severely injuring them.”

The abscesses, he said, can grow as large as “half a cantaloupe” and the infection can ultimately kill the seal.

Littnan said the “lethal removal” was the last option. His crew undertook the mission to Kure Atoll “sadly and with great regret,” but one adult male cannot be valued over two young female pups that would otherwise have a relatively good chance of becoming mothers.

“How many future offspring from these females have we lost because of this male?” he said. “There is no reason to believe he will stop this behavior anytime soon as he is sub-dominant and will be for years.”

Tim Robinson, program coordinator at the Hawaiian Monk Seal Watch Program, lamented, but backed up the decision. The program is made up of an all-volunteer group of Kaua‘i residents dedicated to protect the seals, but they also go to several schools a year to educate students about the seals.

Robinson said the two males originally targeted for euthanization were not the alpha males in their colonies, “in other words, other males were getting the breeding done.” As a result, those males were attacking other seals and holding pups and juveniles under water in an attempt to drown them.

“You never want to euthanize any animal of an endangered species, but the problem here is that there was no way to bring these animals into the main islands anymore,” said Robinson, explaining that the population on the Main Hawaiian Islands has grown so much in the last few years that those seals would engage in the same aggressive behavior if relocated, and could potentially kill pups.

Alternatives

There were two other alternatives sought for euthanization; placing the aggressive seals in closed facilities or relocating them to the Main Hawaiian Islands.

“But there was no budget to transport them and no open facility to put them at,” Robinson said. “So it’s really regrettable, this decision to euthanize them. That being said, what’s critical to the survival of the population is the young female pups. So the trade-off here is that by getting rid of these two guys they’re letting the young live.”

NOAA spokeswoman Wende Goo said since NOAA announced its plan for euthanization several people called the agency with concerns.

Goo said NOAA looked into relocating the animals to the Main Hawaiian Islands, but because the seals are an endangered species, there are limitations on where to place them. Plus relocating them would create a new problem for already established populations in those islands.

“These animals are not going to change their behavior,” Goo said. “Just moving them from one island to another just means they have other pups or juveniles to pick on.”

There are only four facilities that have a permit to house endangered species, she said. One of those facilities is the Waikiki Aquarium, which used to accommodate two seals until one of them, Luca, died recently.

“However, they already had plans to take in another seal,” said Goo, adding that the aquarium has a permit that allows them to keep only two seals, which are there mostly for display but also for some behavioral studies.

Death sentence

on hold

The fate of the elusive KE18, who was scheduled to be shot — has not been sealed yet.

“Right now we are kinda trying to gather some data so we can figure out what our options are for the future,” Goo said. “It’s still a little too early for us to know exactly what we are going to do. We have several things that we need to take into consideration.”

Littnan said there are many factors that will play into what NOAA might be able to do next year.

“In the interim we will continue to collect observational data and will review all options,” he said.

For many in the general public, Littnan said, this is a hard decision to understand and support, but this was the only option at this time that would help safeguard the population. NOAA will continue to examine other options, including increasing the number of facilities that can hold seals.

Goo said NOAA goes to Kure Atoll only a couple times a year, and is trying to figure out if there are other opportunities to go up there. But even if a crew is able to go back soon, there are still a lot of questions to be answered, she said.

Robinson said his biggest fear is that the public won’t understand why NOAA sought to euthanize the seals.

“It’s not a happy thing, anytime you have to take an animal, that’s for certain,” he said. “It’s a very, very unpleasant thing, but it’s being done for a good reason.”

Endangered

Hawaiian monk seals have been listed as endangered since Dec. 23, 1976, by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, based on a ruling by the director of the National Marine Fisheries Services, pursuant to Section 4 of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

There are an estimated 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals left in the world, but their closest relatives, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean monk seals, are even worse off. The Mediterranean species has only an estimated 400 to 600 individuals left, while the Caribbean species was listed in 2008 as extinct.

The last confirmed sighting of a Caribbean monk seal — which 500 years ago thrived in Caribbean waters — was in 1952. A few sightings have been reported but not confirmed since; the last one was in 1998 and is believed that fishermen mistook the hooded seal for the Caribbean monk seal.

The two surviving species of monk seals share a similar fate: Fishermen blame them for stealing their catch and destroying their equipment. As a result, both species have been a target of violence from some fishermen on opposite sides of the globe. Hawaiian monk seals have been shot to death, and Mediterranean monk seals have been tied to weights and dropped into the ocean to drown.

Draft PEIS

On Oct. 1, 2010, the NMFS Pacific Islands Regional Office announced it was preparing a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to assess the impacts of implementing specific management actions and administering a research-and-enhancement program to improve survival of Hawaiian monk seals.

From Oct. 21 to Oct. 26, 2010, NMFS hosted public meetings on O‘ahu, Big Island, Maui, Molokai, and Kaua‘i. The scoping period ended on Nov. 30, 2010, and 139 comments were received. Those comments were summarized in the Scoping Summary Report.

NMFS has now approved the Draft PEIS for public review. The Notice of Availability will be published in the Federal Register on Friday, marking the start of a 60-day comment period.

Comments will be accepted on the Draft Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Actions PEIS until Oct. 17 and can be submitted to monkseal@noaa.gov or to NMFS PIRO, Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Actions PEIS at 1601 Kapiolani Blvd., Suite 1110, Honolulu, HI 96814.

Public hearings will be held statewide from Sept. 12 to Sept. 17, on O‘ahu, Molokai, Big Island, Maui and Kaua‘i, to give the public an opportunity for verbal testimony on the Draft PEIS.

Each hearing will consist of a 30-minute open-house session to let the public talk to members of the project team, including NMFS scientists and managers involved in monk seal recovery. The hearings will also include taking testimonials from the public after the open-house sessions.

Kaua‘i’s meeting will be Sept. 17 at Wilcox Elementary School in Lihu‘e. There will be an open-house from 9 to 9:30 a.m., and a public hearing immediately after, lasting until 12 p.m. Another meeting will be held later in the day, with an open-house from 4 to 4:30 p.m., and public hearing immediately after until 7 p.m.

The Draft PEIS may be downloaded online, and paper copies of the document will be available for review at Lihu‘e and Princeville public libraries.

Written requests for paper copies of the Draft PEIS or a USB drive containing the document can be mailed to any of these libraries. The document will be provided within 10 days of processing the request.

The meetings are accessible to people with disabilities. Requests for sign language interpretation or other auxiliary aids should be made at least five days before the meeting and directed to Rachel Sprague at (808) 944-2200, or to her fax number at (808) 973-2941.

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