Feds seeking ways to better protect seals

LIHU‘E — Federal officials fear Hawaiian monk seals could soon become extinct in a natural catastrophe such as a disease epidemic or a mass biotoxin poisoning.

Some 10 months ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service began preparing a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement to assess impacts of specific management actions and a program to improve the seals’ survival chances.

The draft PEIS is ready for review. NOAA — the federal agency responsible for the seals’ management under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act — will be conducting two informal question and answer sessions this Friday and Saturday on Kaua‘i.

The Hawaiian monk seal, whose population has declined to an estimated 1,300 to 1,400 animals, is the most endangered pinniped species in U.S. waters.

Most seals are found at six primary locations in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: French Frigate Shoals, Laysan and Lisianski Islands, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and Kure and Midway Atolls. An estimated 80 to 100 seals are found in the Main Hawaiian Islands.

Despite decades of protection efforts and management initiatives which have enhanced population growth at some locations, including the Main Hawaiian Islands, overall population numbers are declining at a rate of 4.5 percent annually, according to NOAA.

Draft PEIS

NMFS is proposing to implement research and enhancement actions identified in the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Plan, with a goal of conserving and recovering the species, states the Draft PEIS. The PEIS is supposed to provide “decision-makers” and the public with an evaluation of the environmental, social and economic effects of the proposed program and alternatives to the proposed action.

“The agency’s recommended Preferred Alternative encompasses a broad scope of research and enhancement activities that would yield greater survival benefits to the species over the long-term than would be expected under the other alternatives,” according to the Draft PEIS.

The area for the PEIS encompasses the range where Hawaiian monk seals are found throughout the entire Hawaiian archipelago. The project includes portions of the open ocean and nearshore environment where seals may be found, plus the shorezone of islands, islets and atolls.

NMFS Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center is authorized, until June 2014, to closely approach for monitoring 1,440 seals, via ground, aerial and vessel; to incidentally disturb during research 200 seals; and to bleach mark 1,315 seals.

The agency can also: capture 556 seals — except lactating females and nursing pups — to flipper tag them or install Passive Integrated Transponders; install sonic tags in 35 weaned pups at French Frigate Shoals to monitor shark predation; perform health screening in 70 healthy seals and 30 unhealthy seals; translocate for enhancement 20 nursing pups that have been either abandoned or switched between lactating females; translocate for enhancement 35 weaned pups; de-worm 200 seals up to 3 years old; and disentangle and de-hook any seals to avoid injury or death.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the current permit allows PIFSC to relocate, remove or euthanize up to 10 adult males to enhance survival of immature animals and adult females. Also, 10 moribund seals of any age or sex may be euthanized or die due to handling at health assessments, plus four incidental deaths may occur during research and enhancement activities over five years, with up to two deaths in a single year. These are some of the issues NOAA wants the public to provide their input on.

70% decline over

past 5 decades

Despite some claims that Hawaiian monk seals were either introduced to Hawai‘i or came here after Polynesians, studies have found the opposite to be true.

The Draft PEIS states that Hawaiian monk seals probably inhabited the Hawaiian archipelago when Polynesian colonizers arrived 1,500 to 1,600 years ago, after which the seals were “likely extirpated” from the Main Hawaiian Islands.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands provided a refuge for the species until European sailors arrived in the 19th century and hunted subpopulations to near extinction.

No historical counts of total population are available, but records indicate an abundance of seals up to the year 1857, no or few seals at most islands by 1893, and a ‘‘large number’’ at Kure Atoll and Pearl and Hermes Reef by 1915, according to the Draft PEIS.

In 1958 a beach count at the six main Northwestern Hawaiian Islands subpopulations found 916 seals age 1 and older. But that count didn’t include seals in the water. A comparable beach count in 2010 found 268 non-pups at the same six locations — a decline of 70 percent over five decades.

The most recent “best estimate of total abundance,” which includes seals in the water, found 1,125 seals in 2009.

NOAA will hold two informal question-and-answer meetings. The first is from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday, at Hanalei Elementary School. The second meeting will be Saturday at Hanapepe Public Library, from 3 to 5:30 p.m., and then continuing from 6 to 9 p.m.

NOAA has stated that those are informational meetings only. Staff will be present to provide a presentation, answer questions and “talk story,” but no oral public comments for the record will be taken.

On Sept. 17 there will be a formal hearing for public comments at Wilcox Elementary School in Lihu‘e, from 9 a.m. to noon, and then again from 4 to 7 p.m.

• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or lazambuja@ thegardenisland.com.

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