Monk seal pup killed

LIHUE — A female Hawaiian monk seal pup, one of several that survived a deadly dog attack in July, was found bludgeoned to death Sunday along a rocky beach in Anahola.

William Aila, chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, called the incident disturbing and unacceptable, and promised authorities are doing everything in their power to find the person or persons responsible.

“It is definitely not pono to bash the head of a baby monk seal,” he said at a press conference Tuesday morning in Honolulu.

The suspicious death is being investigated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in cooperation with the DLNR. A $5,000 reward is being offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

The female seal, tagged RF58, was born June 28 at Waipake Beach, on Kauai’s northeast coast, according to Jamie Thomton, the Kauai marine mammal response program coordinator for NOAA Fisheries. The pup was one of five monk seals — three females, two males — born on Kauai this year. Another female, a two-week old, was found dead in July with deep puncture wounds to the neck as a result of a dog attack.

“It’s a shame to have already lost two of the five healthy pups that were born on Kauai this year,” Thomton said. “It makes the recovery of the species extremely challenging.”

Rachel Sprague, the Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator for NOAA, said the pup was found dead by two members of the public in an area she had been known to visit. She was reportedly spotted perfectly healthy and behaving normally near her birthplace less than 24 hours prior to being found dead.

“She was in really great condition,” Sprague said.

According to the preliminary post-mortem report from the Marine Mammal Center and NOAA Fisheries’ Conservation Medicine Officer, “The seal likely did not die immediately, but from complications associated with massive trauma and internal bleeding.”

Aila said the loss of a female is particularly alarming and that there is no excuse that would justify such an attack.

“Seals, Hawaiian monk seals, have a place in Hawaii,” he said. “They are part of the ecosystem, contrary to the misinformation that people are putting out there.”

“My advice to ocean-goers is, ‘Get used to the presence of monk seals because they belong here and they continue to belong here.’”

RF58 was the daughter of RH58, or “Rocky,” a well-known seal that spends most of her time on Oahu, but usually comes to Kauai to give birth. RH58 was born on Kauai and RF58 was her eighth pup, according to Thomton.

The mother and pup were two of the five victims of the dog attack in July. Following that incident, officials noticed over 60 welts resulting from dog bites up and down the pup’s body, according to Thomton. After developing a pair of abscesses on her neck from the incident, the pup was treated by a veterinarian and eventually recovered.

Thomton said he and his team had been monitoring her movements along the North Shore, and that she was “very healthy.”

The incident is the ninth suspicious monk seal death in Hawaii since 2009. There have been five since 2011 — two on Molokai and three on Kauai.

Thomton said that in all five of the most recent cases, including Sunday’s, necropsy indicated the animals did not die of natural causes. Four deaths were reported as significant trauma to the skull, while one was the result of a gunshot wound, he said.

Killing a monk seal, a critically endangered species, is a Class C felony. Anyone convicted of the offense could face a fine of up to $50,000 and five years in prison. It is also against federal law to kill or harm a Hawaiian monk seal and a conviction can include additional fines and jail time.

The most recent suspicious monk seal death occurred in April of 2012 on Kauai, when a 3-year-old male was discovered on a rocky part of the island’s northeastern shore. That investigation is still open.

In April of 2009, 78-year-old Charles Vidinha fatally shot a pregnant monk seal at Pilaa Beach, on Kauai’s North Shore. He pleaded guilty in September of that year and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to pay a $25 fine.

Inga Gibson, Hawaii state director for the Humane Society of the United States, one of several organizations offering an award, said anyone who would intentionally kill an innocent animal is a potential threat to the community.

“Somebody had to have seen something, somebody had to have heard something,” she said.

Anyone with information related to a monk seal death is asked to call the NOAA OLE hotline at 1-800- 853-1964 or Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) at 1-855-DLNR-TIP or 643-DLNR.

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world. The majority, about 900, reside in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, part of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument. A smaller but growing population of about 200 seals inhabit the main Hawaiian Islands.

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Chris D’Angelo, environment writer, can be reached at 245-0441 or cdangelo@thegardenisland.com.

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