Foul play suspected in latest monk seal death

Foul play is again suspected in the second death of a Hawaiian monk seal found on Kaua‘i this year, with the latest victim discovered Sunday, authorities said Wednesday.

“On Monday, we did a necropsy, an animal autopsy,” said Jeff Walters, Hawaiian monk seal coordinator and Marine Mammals Branch Chief for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“The results of the necropsy led us to believe we could not rule out foul play or some intentional act by a human. I don’t want to give specifics because law enforcement says details might be important in their investigation,” Walters said by telephone.

The body of the 3-year-old male monk seal tagged RA 16 was discovered on a rocky part of the island’s northeastern shore by members of the public who notified lifeguards, Walters said.

State and federal authorities are investigating, he said, since it is against state and federal laws to harm or kill a monk seal.

Sunday’s discovery marked the fourth monk seal discovered dead under suspicious circumstances in Hawai‘i in the past six months.

“Unfortunately, we’re at a point where there have been several recent suspicious deaths where we can’t rule out foul play, where they may be evidence of an intentional act by a person,” Walter said.

He cited the death of another young male monk seal, age 2 or 3, found on Kaua‘i in January.

This death was followed by two earlier “suspicious” deaths of monk seals on Moloka‘i — one last November and one last December. A third death on Moloka‘i reported in December 2011 was first believed suspicious, but foul play was ruled out following a necropsy.

Until December 2011, he said no suspicious deaths had been reported since December 2009, when a male monk seal was discovered dead of a gunshot wound on Moloka‘i. In April 2009, a pregnant female monk seal was fatally shot on Kaua‘i, “so we lost a mother seal and the pup,” Walters said.

Three groups Wednesday posted another $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the latest monk seal death, bringing to $40,000 the amount available related to all four recent monk seal deaths.

The rewards were posted by the Humane Society of the United States and its Wildlife Land Trust, the Conservation Council for Hawai‘i and the Center for Biological Diversity, with earlier contributions from the Marine Conservation Institute and an anonymous donor.

Walters said monk seals are identified by natural markings such as “little scars from cookie cutter shark bites or other incidents” or by tags placed on their hind flippers. The monk seal found Sunday had been tagged RA 16, he said.

“The seals move from island to island. On any given day, there will be as many as 30 monk seals around Kaua‘i. Not all will be on the beach, but every day you’ll have several seals up there,” Walters said.

Local, state and federal authorities work with volunteers on Kaua‘i to ensure that monk seals found on land are protected by ropes erected to keep crowds away.

Residents and visitors are urged to call authorities if they see a monk seal on shore.

The monk seals often do not make many or any movements when they are spotted lying on a beach.

“It’s hard to tell if they’re sleeping or if they’re sick or dead, but we ask people to call it in, no matter what,” Walters said.

The Kaua‘i hotline is 651-7668, he said. Monk seal spotters can also call a statewide toll-free hotline at 888-256-9840.

“I just hope these kinds of incidents don’t polarize our community,” Walters said.

“We do have people who love seals, and we also have people who are concerned that seals are impacting their livelihood. There might be potential conflicts between marine wildlife and their life as fishermen or ocean users,” he said. “We want to all peacefully coexist.”

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