Reviving recovery plan

LIHUE — The Marine Conservation Institute is calling for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to “redouble its efforts” to conserve and recover the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

“Although NOAA’s field staff has made progress on some fronts to protect and save the lives of individual seals, we think NOAA can — and must — do more to slow down and eventually reverse the decline,” MCI’s Conservation Advisor William Chandler said during a teleconference Thursday.

Despite continued efforts, the population of between 900 and 1,100 seals is declining at an annual rate of 4 percent — a trend MCI estimates would halve the population in less than 20 years.

On Thursday, MCI released “Enhancing the Future of the Hawaiian Monk Seal,” an 82-page report analyzing NOAA’s Monk Seal Recovery Program and how it can be improved to achieve a self-sustaining population of 3,200 individual seals in the next several decades.

The report comes two months after a monk seal pup was found bludgeoned to death along a rocky beach in Anahola.

Charles Littnan, lead scientist for NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, said that overall, MCI’s report, including recommendations for greater transparency and community involvement, is a “fair assessment,” and in line with what most people that work with monk seals would like to see. 

However, he felt the advocacy group could have done a better job of representing the leaps and bounds his program has made over the years.

“We have now become one of the most sophisticated marine mammal recovery programs on the planet, or the most sophisticated,” he said. “The tools and techniques that we have developed through our past studies and extensive knowledge of the species have given us a whole suite of tools that we can apply to recover this population.”

Littnan said one-third of today’s population is alive because of NOAA and its partners’ interventions over the many decades.

One of the major things undermining the species’ recovery, as highlighted in MCI’s report, is a lack of funding.

The NOAA Monk Seal Recovery Plan, released in 2007, calls for speedy recovery actions costing $7 million annually, Chandler said. 

“Yet, the agency has consistently budgeted less money for the seals ever since that plan came out,” he said. “NOAA’s current seal budget hovers at around $4 million per year. This $3 million gap means important things are not getting done to save seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Island or to deal with human-seal interactions and conflicts in the Main Hawaiian Islands.”

Littnan recognized more could certainly be done with additional money and said NOAA leadership has been working on strategies to secure more funds for the program.

“We do a lot and we do the best that we can with the funds, but the recovery plan indicates, based on that analysis, that more funds could mean more work,” he said.

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the rarest marine mammals in the world. The majority, about 900, reside in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where mortality rates are high.

A smaller but growing population of about 200 seals inhabit the Main Hawaiian Islands.

MCI President Dr. Lance Morgan said if the federal agency wants to reverse the long decline of the iconic species, it is going to have to be more aggressive.

This means NOAA will have to increase its budget for the seal, focus program management on tangible objectives that keep seals alive, and request more help from other federal and state agencies and nonprofits, he said.

Matthew Sproat, a community liaison with Honua Consulting, said during the teleconference that while working with fishermen and community members on Kauai he found frustrations expressed toward monk seals are really frustrations about regulation and federal activity.

“There is a lot of mistrust between the community and the federal government,” he said. “In addition, a lot of misinformation about the monk seal is being spread throughout the community.”

Littnan said that while NOAA has a ways to go with community outreach and engagement, it’s already come a long way.

“We have had a very positive impact on the population,” he said.

MCI also recommended NOAA be more proactive in releasing information about its law enforcement activities. The problem, Chandler said, is that the public receives little information about what the Office of Law Enforcement is doing.

“We think Hawaiians would like to know more about what is being achieved and how NOAA is preventing and prosecuting crimes,” he said.

Rachel Sprague, NOAA’s Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator, said it’s tough to balance providing information to people and not jeopardizing investigations, and that her program defers to law enforcement on releasing information.

Wende Goo, a NOAA spokeswoman, said Thursday that there was no new information to be shared about the investigation into the recent monk seal killing on Kauai.

Ultimately, Chandler said recovering the Hawaiian monk seal is not rocket science, that NOAA can do it if it gets serious about implementing its own plan.

“If we lose the battle to save the Hawaiian monk seal, we’ll have only ourselves to blame,” he said in a release.

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

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