Seal plan draws mixed reaction

HANALEI/HANAPEPE — Community members aired their concerns over a federal plan to save Hawaiian monk seals from extinction during two town hall meetings this weekend on opposite sides of the island.

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Program presented its Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for public review on Friday and Saturday in Hanalei and Hanapepe, respectively. The meetings were hosted by the National Marine Fisheries Service, a federal agency whose responsibilities include protecting and recovering monk seals under the authority of the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

After hearing presentations from a slate of scientists, residents made far-ranging remarks. There was support for the effort to save the species, concerns over how the proposal plans to accomplish this goal, and fear of new regulations infringing on fishing and ocean recreation.

Jeff Walters, branch chief, Marine Mammals Program, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, said starvation, shark predation and entanglement are preventing female seals from reaching maturity. As a consequence, fewer pups are being born.

The agency’s goal is the eventual downlisting and removal of the seal from the endangered species list. To accomplish this, the program proposes increased population monitoring, behavioral modification (encouraging seals away from nets, people, harbors and places that hinder growth in the wild), translocation, and improving health by fighting disease.

Walters explained that seal pups are weaned for about seven weeks and then fend for themselves. Most, up to 90 percent, don’t make it to their third year, and females don’t typically reproduce until age 6.

With some 1,100 seals estimated to be left in the world, experts say the population is crashing with a 40 percent decline in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

“It’s a very bad situation from a wildlife perspective,” Walters said. “It presents a dismal future.”

There are about 950 monk seals with about a 4 percent increase annually in the Main Hawaiian Islands. The plan calls for translocating about 20 juvenile seals and pups from the NWHI until they mature, and then return them with better odds of surviving and increasing the population.

Mixed plate

About a dozen residents attended the meeting Friday at Hanalei Elementary School.

Lloyd Miyashiro of Kapa‘a, who volunteers as a seal spotter, said he supports the full range of options in the proposal.

“It’s worth a try to save them,” he said.

Ronald Nakazawa of Kilauea said he doesn’t usually come to these forums. But as an avid angler who retired four years ago, he said it is important to ensure his pastime is not infringed upon with laws that make favorite spots inaccessible.

He added that fishing is a part of the culture here and that he is now involved with passing what he knows to his grandchildren. He said it’s things like fishing that keep kids away from drugs and other trouble.

Lynn McNutt of Kapahi said she was unsure if the program is consistent with previous studies and questioned whether translocation is a good idea. She also felt that federal agencies are too often exempted and that the government and military present much more of an environmental concern than all other ocean users combined.

Another guest said the military activity, including low frequency sonar, has the potential for harm. The presentation did note that military activities from the 1950s to the 1970s had a major impact on all species in the NWHI, but that the ESA should offer adequate protections now.

Charles Littnan, Ph.D., lead scientist, HMSRP, said electronic tracking reports can be matched with military exercises to reveal if and when a given activity would have had an impact on the seals.

Timing is everything

Littnan said the community feedback is valuable and the concerns are real, but that people should keep in mind the decades of research, experience, activities and complexities of scientific analysis that went into this project.

“We have an amazing amount of high quality information to back up our decision,” he said. “This is a very complex risk-benefit analysis and we are taking risk very seriously.”

His concern is that people don’t review information from the source and are influenced by others who interpret it for their own purpose. It poisons the conversation, he said, and they spend more time dispelling rumors than talking about true merits or consequences of the plan with partners and stakeholders.

Littnan said it is important to act now. It may not be apparent for another decade but it would be too late to make a dramatic rescue when just a handful of seals are left.

Translocation is bigger and more comprehensive that most people think, Littnan said. At its heart it is about getting mature females to environments where they will have better odds of succeeding with mothering and survival.

There are many changing factors that go into environmental selection and include climactic variables, oceanographic trends, temperatures, cycles and a slate of other data that present positive or negative periods of survivability for years at a time.

“For the short term we are trying to salvage those females and the fastest way to do that is to bring some females down here,” Littnan said.

Another participant said NOAA agencies need to communicate better so that programs such as this are better integrated and not counterproductive. Another asked why NOAA couldn’t keep a more watchful eye on the NWHI and find a way to feed them rather than move them.

The presentation noted that Hawaiian monk seals differ from the seals of Arctic ecosystems. They are solitary and don’t bunch up in rookeries with dominant males.

Littnan said it is possible to care for emaciated animals who are sick and immobile, but that otherwise it is difficult to track a monk seal. He said it is easier to move individual seals to a new environment.

 Removing ulua or sharks, or tampering with an ecosystem may present a short-term boost for the seals, but could result in a long-term ecological disaster. There is no data to move forward that would satisfy regulations for that type of environmental activity, he added.

Cumulative impact

Roughly 20 people attended the Saturday meeting at Hanapepe Public Library.

Dr. Carl Berg, chair of the Surfrider Foundation’s Kaua‘i Chapter, said the PEIS does not include the emotional elements that are angering people. He labeled this in part as environmental justice for the local community.

Berg said the fishermen would disagree with the negligible impact statement in the plan. He said based on what ocean users are saying at other meetings, bringing small female seals to Kaua‘i temporarily could have more effect than is designated on the proposed plan’s impact scale. He said a higher than expected impact could occur and should be expressed in testimony at the public hearing, Sept. 17, at Wilcox Elementary School in Lihu‘e.

With anglers viewing the new permit as creating a sanctuary for critical habitat, Berg said the discussion should provide a comprehensive look at the cumulative impact of three NOAA programs involved in the project.

Walters said the fishing industry has not provided evidence of interaction that could be used to demonstrate impact. He said reports of seals in traps or stealing fish and bait is second- or third-hand information. He said he would adjust the impact with first-hand evidence and is working with the industry on better reporting.

Fishing is not affected in the same way as a land-based impact, where gradation, fences and other construction goes through a process when the proposed action is near a beach area, Walters said. Fishing presents some concerns with interaction, but he said it is a lesser concern to add 20 seals among some 1,000 anglers.

The lack of large-scale seal removals in the past had supporters, such as Berg, asking if Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument might also object to the project as a manipulation of the population structure to fit a new model of survivorship. The response was that it is more logistically feasible to move 20 pups per year than to attempt to alter a significant ulua or shark population.

“These are animals that are going to be dead, and out of the population,” Littnan said. “We are not impacting their consumption of biomass or their footprint; these are literally dead seals swimming.”

Gordon LaBedz, M.D., was also present as a Surfrider Foundation member. He noted that the nonprofit raised the $15,000 reward for three monk seals who were shot dead in 2009, leading to the arrest and conviction of one person.

LaBedz opposed translocation. He said it is in the best interest of the seals as mammals to help replenish the sources of crustacean and small fish in the NWHI region as a food source that man is largely responsible for depleting.

Monk seals eat crustaceans, octopus, squid, eels and small fish, food that is eight inches or smaller and near the ocean bottom. They tend to interact well with coral, sharks and ulua; however, presenters spoke of an anomaly on a NWHI atoll where sharks are taking seal pups in as little as eight inches of water.

Critical habitat

In his presentation, Walters outlined the PEIS and the impact of proposed actions with research and enhancement activities to help slow monk seal population decline. He emphasized the PEIS is not proposing new federal regulations on fishing or public access to beaches, nor is it proposing new federal restricted areas or closures.

The program operates under a federal permit that expires in 2014. The new permit under proposal would either continue current activities or adopt the new plan if approved.

Greg Holzman, who spoke at the Saturday meeting as a fisherman, was upset that the Federal Registry is reporting potential impacts on fishing as more significant than “negligible” in the NOAA proposal.

He said the Critical Habitat designation is a genuine threat to commercial fishermen when the government has the right to exercise options that will require additional barriers for licensing or blocking off areas entirely where there are seal pups or to close off areas for fishing altogether.

“That to me is outrageous,” he said.

The critical habitat designation is a layer that changes the intent and purpose of the monk seal recovery project, he added.

The presenters clarified that the critical habitat designation would place requirements on federal agencies but not the state or citizens.

With the open area of the NWHI and the absence of man, Holzman said there appears to be an issue of logistics.

“It’s easier to deal with this down here than up there,” he said.

Mimi Olry, a veterinarian and coordinator of the state Kaua‘i Monk Seal Response program, said volunteers, residents and tourists report seeing monk seals up to 10 times per day.

There are limitations on what can be done to help the monk seals. Hooks and nets from lost fishing gear present a serious hazard, she said, adding that the seals acquire new diseases from livestock, pets and people when they encounter island runoff and sewage.

Long-term health issues are presented from exposure to toxins such as polychlorinated biphenyl or camphene, better know as PCBs. These contain benzenes and other organic pollutants that are stored in seal and whale blubber as well as fish.

The monk seal hotline is 651-7668. Visit www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/permits/eis/hawaiianmonkseal.htm for more information on the PEIS.

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