Protecting monk seal important to preserving Hawaiian culture

On Dec. 3, The Garden Island newspaper reported the killing of a Hawaiian monk seal pup on a beach in Anahola. The reward for the killing of the seal went from $5,000 up to $25,000 in a short time for the apprehension and conviction of the person(s) involved with the senseless killing. I call it a senseless killing because it goes against all the values that were passed on to me by my parents and other kupuna who up to this very day live off the land as our ancestors did many years ago. My family still live on the same ancestral lands that go back before the European discovery. We have never left. They still maintain the respect and the kuleana of malama aina.

Reading the posts on social networking sites and listening to some of my friends who are of kanaka oiwi ancestry themselves debate the HMS’s existence as an endemic species causes great concern. It reflects not only the positive but the ignorantly negative remarks by people who make weak claims as to their belief that the HMS was introduced into the Hawaiian Islands. Some of the claims are that modern Hawaiians state that their grandparents never seen the HMS while growing up as kids. Some say that there isn’t any mo’olelo or chants that indicate the presence of the HMS in ancient times.

While they may have spoken it with all honesty, the facts are that the lack of irrefutable evidence does not mean that none exists at all. For instance, for those who have grandparents or great-grandparents who have never seen the HMS as kids, ask them this, “Have you ever seen the moa-nalu? or the nene-nui?” I would bet them all the money that I have that they would say “No.” They would probably only be able to ask what it was. Even our ancestors some 200 or 300 years ago haven’t seen them. Until recent years, nobody knew they existed except for the discovery of their remains by archaeologists. The span of our grandparents’ lifetime pales in comparison to the time that the Hawaiian Islands became populated. Estimates are that the moa-nalu and the nene-nui may have become extinct long before the people who later became Hawaiians arrived on our island shores.

The list below are only some of the animals that have gone extinct in these islands followed by the approximate times of their extinction. None of us alive today, nor our grandparents, great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents, can lay claim that any of these below had ever been seen in these islands during their childhood, and yet evidence remains of their existence, many of which were found in sinkhole deposits like at Makauwahi Cave in Mahaulepu.

Apteribis, Maui and Molokai, 200,000 years ago

Giant amakihi, Big Island, Hawaii, 1000 BC

Great Maui crake, Maui, 1200s

Kauai finch, Kauai and Oahu, Hawaii, Early 1500s

Kauai mole duck, Kauai, 4050 BC

Kauai palila, Kauai, 1750s?

Maui Nui finch, Maui and Molokai, Hawaii, Early 1100s

Moa-nalo, Hawaii, 1000s AD

Nene-nui, Hawaii, 1000s AD

Oahu grosbeak, Oahu and Maui, Hawaii, Before 1778

Oahu petrel, Hawaii, Before 1778

Pila’s palila, Kauai, Hawaii — possibly survived until early 18th century

Primitive koa-finch, Oahu and Maui, Hawaii, Before 1778

Scissor-billed koa-finch fossils on Kauai, and Maui, Hawaii, Before 1778

Stout-legged finch, Kauai, Hawaii, Unknown

Wood harrier, Maui and Molokai, Unknown

Because our grandparents have never seen them does not mean that they never existed here. In fact all of us, including our ancestors some 200 years ago, may have never seen any of these animals listed above but we know that they exist because their remains were found in deposits like at the Makauwahi cave in Mahaulepu. The problem with the monk seal is that they are for the most part creatures of the sea and often when they die they get consumed by other sea creatures or their bones are scattered in the ocean by the waves. However, the belief that the bones of the HMS were never found in these islands is a false one. Between the summer field seasons of 1968 to 1970, researchers uncovered HMS remains in the Lapakahi archaeological site on the Big Island. It was found in an ancient waste pile that was settled about 600 years ago. When King Kamehameha visited Nihoa in the Northern Hawaiian islands in 1857 the Manuokawai log stated that there were about a dozen seals on shore. There were no notations that the seals were killed because they were introduced invasive species. Between the 1800s and the 1900s records show that the HMS were being hunted in the Hawaiian archipelago to almost near-extinction. It is no wonder many of our grandparents or great-grandparents never saw them, for none of them were born yet.

Still, the arguments against the HMS goes on and includes the often heard but unfounded thoughts that the HMS is competing with local fishermen for food. People forget one thing. These creatures are mammals of the sea. They eat what their environment provides “if” they can catch it. Has anyone ever seen a seal hunt for food, much less catch it? Try taking away a spear, net or fishing pole and see how successful you are in catching a lot of fish without even using your hands! They do not have the option to plant food as we do. We have more options to survive on than they have. This is the reason why they are so opportunistic. It’s easier for them to eat fish off of a gill net than it is for them to go catch it themselves. Even if they do collect food, it is only enough for them to eat and not like humans who overfish to sell and fill their freezers.

Worldwide, the ocean’s supply of fish is being depleted due in part to overfishing but also because of pollution and environmental changes brought on by man and nature itself. The true enemy of our fishing grounds is not the monk seal but by the encroachment of man and their irresponsible practices. There are many who fish not for personal consumption but to sell to zoos and markets. For hundreds of years our ancestors knew how to live on these isolated islands in harmony with nature and now modern kanaka throw that all away? Today some complain that the HMS is raiding their refrigerator. These people fail to realize that like their refrigerators at home, you take out without refilling and it’s going to end up being empty! Food doesn’t magically appear.

Back in our ancestors’ days we had fishponds to protect certain species from predators to assure that the people can be fed. They farmed the fish because the sea was too unreliable to depend on to supply food for a large population as we had here in ancient times. They couldn’t go to the supermarket for dinner so taking care of the oceans resources by allowing it to replenish itself was of absolute importance. They also had farming practices done on land to minimize the impact on their ocean resources. Our ancestors fully understood the symbiotic relationship between man and nature.

Many of those who are complaining about the monk seals eating up the ocean’s resources need to ask themselves this one question: “What am I doing to assure that the reproduction of our ocean’s supply of fish is being propagated like our ancestors did?” Or are they so used to taking at will from the land and sea without giving back that they feel that they are entitled without concern of our kuleana to malama aina? Our kanaka oiwi should know better. What about mano? They also eat our fish and often times even when we hooked them up and reeling um in. So what? Are they going to start killing them too? Is this what our modern-day Hawaiians have wasted ourselves to?

None of the arguments against the Hawaiian monk seal makes any sense. So many proudly say that they are “Hawaiian” but do things that would disappoint our ancestors. Our people lived with values which included harvesting only enough to eat. Their resource management was governed by a firm system with drastic punishment. Something that many kanaka take for granted today.

They have already found skeletal remains of the HMS that predates our grandparents and great-grandparents and I’m certain that they will find more from the list of animals in Hawaii that have gone extinct. If people keep on killing the Hawaiian monk seals, our descendants will one day see it added to an extinct species list and they can thank those who either killed it or did nothing to protect it. They will never have a chance to see one of the creations of Ke Akua who gave life to it and placed it on this earth. Hawaiian monk seals aren’t the problem. The real problem are the ignorance and arrogance of man and for us kanaka oiwi, the detachment of ourselves from the piko which connects us to those before us and those not yet born.

It may seem as if all of the above is aimed at kanaka oiwi and to some extent most of it is. Although it is the responsibility of all residents, including businesses, to assure practices that minimize the impact on our natural resources, we have a vested interest and kuleana to protect our resources as our ancestors did. Many things were lost and taken away that have changed us as a people over the years, but the most important thing to hold on to are the cultural values of ka po’e kupuna kahiko and to pass it on to future generations. For once it is gone, the Hawaiian as we know it, will cease to exist.


Dominic Acain is a resident of Kekaha.


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