An informal history of monk seals

My wife and I are volunteers with the Kaua‘i Monk Seal Conservation Hui, but I write as an individual and not on behalf of the group. I am very concerned about the two seals found dead “under suspicious circumstances” this year on Kaua‘i. While investigators have yet to reveal the causes of death, they have not ruled out foul play.  In addition, there were two seals shot dead on this island in 2009, one case still unsolved.

There is much controversy surrounding the issue of monk seals on and around Kaua‘i. Many fishermen don’t like them because seals sometimes take fish from lines, stringers and nets. Seals are also blamed for the lack of fish in the water. And some people don’t like what the feds and the state are doing, or planning to do, to protect these creatures. They say more protection means more restrictions from the federal and state levels, less rights, less access.

Moreover, many people say, the seals are not Hawaiian monk seals because they were never here in the old days and why are they not a part of  the oral history of these islands? In this article, I want to address these last two issues.

Like most people of my generation, who grew up here in the 1940s and ‘50s, I never heard of or saw a monk seal “back in da days.” And it is true that in 1994, the state brought in 21 overly aggressive males from Laysan Island, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and spread them throughout the main Hawaiian Islands. They had to be removed to protect the female seals from injury and death. But if only males were brought in, I thought to myself, there must have been female seals already here in order for them to reproduce. So I started to do research and started talking to other old-timers about seal sightings on Kaua‘i before 1994.

Former Kaua‘i resident Patrick Ching, in 1994, wrote a book, “The Hawaiian Monk Seal.”  Ching tells of the birth of a monk seal on the North Shore in 1991. Ha’ena native Matt Mahuiki remembers that birth. He says his whole family used to watch as the baby seal, “Hina,” would go into the water to play and come back on shore to rest. Ching cites another seal birth on the South Shore in 1988. In 1988 or 1989, a seal was killed at Anohola. Don Heacock, longtime DLNR Fisheries regional biologist, says that Anahola seal was an adult female.  

Edward Moritsugu of Kilauea says his father worked for Kilauea Sugar, and every day after work would go fishing. The father first saw a seal in the 1960s at Rock Quarry (Kahili Beach). Kapahi resident Harry Kamoku also used to work for Kilauea Sugar and had access through the cane fields to Larsen’s Beach. He first saw a seal, also in the 1960s, at upper Larsen’s. Former police chief Brian Fujiuchi says he was a teenager diving off Smith’s Beach in Anahola when he saw a seal in the 1960s. In Ching’s book, he notes that the first documented monk seal birth in the main Hawaiian Islands was at Polihale in 1961.

Leo Ohai is now 89 years old and still sharp of mind. In his day, he was a very well-known commercial fisherman on Kaua‘i. Leo says it was in 1940 or 1941 when he saw a seal on Kaua‘i for the first time, at Makahuena Point on the South Shore. He saw seals at other places around Kaua‘i, but only a few in those early years. He says other people saw those seals too, but “They all gone now.” Before he saw seals on Kaua‘i, he saw them on his many fishing trips moving over time from French Frigate Shoals to Nihoa to Lehua Rock.  

So there were monk seals on this island more than 70 years ago, but they were so few as to be practically invisible. Those who did see seals in those days are all gone, except for Leo Ohai. And that is why people living now say monk seals were never here before. But they were.

But why are monk seals not mentioned in the Kumu Lipo and other sources of oral history? Haunani-Kay Trask, retired professor of Hawaiian Studies at University of Hawai‘i, once wrote an essay on the monk seal for the book “Intimate Nature: the Bond Between Women and Animals” (1998). Trask theorized that the seals left these main islands upon the arrival of the first Polynesian settlers because they were shy, not having seen humans before. Within a few generations, all memory of the seals could have been lost. Ching, in his book, had asimilar theory. Supporting this idea is the discovery of monk seal bones buried at the Lapakahi archeological site on the Big Island.  The site was first settled about 600 years ago.

Carlos Andrade, director of the Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH-Manoa, and a Kaua‘i boy, says Hawaiian history is recorded not only in oral tradition. In an email, he writes: “Place names in Hawai’i do encode much information about all aspects of life in the many centuries prior to written history. One such place is Ka Lae o Ka ‘Ilio, or as it more currently known, Ka Ilio Point, located in Ha‘ena. ‘Ilio,’ though more commonly defined as ‘dog,’ can also be a reference to ilio hele i ka uaua (dog running in the rough seas), the Hawaiian name for the monk seal.”

Monk seals are ancient. Their DNA, scientists say, has not changed in 10 million years, making them older than all other seals, sea lions and walruses left on Earth. Currently, there are about 1,100 of the Hawaiian monk seals left, and the numbers are dropping about 4 to 5 percent per year. They are critically endangered. My wife and I, as well as other volunteers and coordinators, are doing all we can to save them. I’d like them to be around for our grandchildren’s grandchildren.  

Whether people like the monk seals or not does not matter. What does matter is that they be respected, for they are part of the Circle of Life, just like us. They are one of God’s children, just like us.  

Leo Ohai’s son, Nephi Ohai, runs probably the largest commercial fishing operation in Hawai‘i. Nephi says: “Seals have a place here.  They belong here and should be protected.” Respected Hawaiian studies kumu Sabra Kauka, says, simply:  “Monk seals are ancient creatures, they have every right to live here.”

What do you say?

• Lloyd Miyashiro is a lifetime Eastside resident and retired Kapa’a High School teacher.

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