LIHUE — Despite recent headlines, encounters between dogs and Hawaiian monk seals are actually quite rare.
Of all the threats to the endangered marine species today — adult male aggression, shark predation, human interaction and marine debris — interactions with dogs are “minimal,” according to David Schofield, a stranding coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In fact, the Department of Land and Natural Resources said it has no other reported dog attacks on record in recent years. Regardless, officials consider such incidents a serious matter.
“Dogs are a concern because of injuries to seals, but also because of the potential for disease transfer, which could be catastrophic to the seal population,” Mimi Olry said.
Olry, the Kauai marine mammal response field coordinator for the state DLNR, said it is important to understand the wider damage done by loose dogs to all wildlife.
In late-July, a 2-week-old monk seal pup was found mauled to death on a secluded North Shore beach, with deep puncture wounds to the neck. Four other seals, including two pups and two mothers, were also bitten in the attack. DLNR officials later captured two free-roaming dogs in the area that were suspected to be involved; however, DNA tests did not provide conclusive evidence. The dogs were later euthanized.
While DLNR said attacks were rare, its Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement on Kauai said the July attack is only the second documented case of dogs in the vicinity of monk seals since 2013. The first occurred in September of 2013, when an officer responded to find the dogs were on leashes but that there were no reported incidents with the monk seal.
The investigation into the most recent fatal attack is ongoing.
“These are the only two cases involving dogs and monk seals,” DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward wrote in an email. “There are other cases involving seals but these did not involve dogs.”
Ward said tracking statistics back prior to 2013 would be too difficult to provide.
However, as for statewide seal cases referred to the NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement, approximately 10 percent over a five-year period involved dogs, according to information provided by the Marine Conservation Institute.
William Chandler, MCI’s conservation advisor, said that in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by his nonprofit advocacy group, the National Marine Fisheries Service, reported a total of 81 incidents involving seals between Jan. 1 2008, and June 25, 2013.
Eight cases were listed as dogs — wild and domestic — attacking or harassing seals, according to Chandler. Four of those eight occurred on Kauai, with two involving seals being bitten.
Chandler questions whether the numbers may be much higher.
“These are only documented cases that have been reported,” he said.
Schofield said that while there are certainly some seal-dog interactions that don’t get reported, NOAA has an extensive network of between 300 and 400 volunteers across the islands responding to seals on a daily basis.
Of the 81 statewide monk seal cases reported to NOAA, 12 were listed as mortalities, 45 as harassment, three as feeding of a seal and 13 as other. In addition to the four dog incidents on Kauai, three occurred on Oahu and one on Big Island.
The first of the reported cases on Kauai occurred in 2008 and involved a dog harassing a monk seal. A written warning was issued and no bite occurred in that case, according to MCI. In 2010, a dog attacked and bit a monk seal on an undisclosed Kauai beach. That case was ultimately transferred to DLNR.
The other two cases occurred in 2012 and 2013, but were later closed due to lack of evidence.
While not a major issue today, Schofield said, “we cannot afford to lose a single monk seal,” and that the threat of dogs could prove serious.
“It could be a concern in the future,” he said.