Dangerous attraction

LYDGATE — Two Hawaiian Monk Seals from Kauai were hooked in ulua fishing tackle over the past couple months, underscoring a state project to provide mammal friendly hooks for free.

Both seals were transported to Oahu for hook removal after they’d been spotted by volunteers on the island. Neither animal required surgery and both seals were released upon arrival back on the island at Lydgate Park.

“We’re seeing them daily and they’re doing great,” said Jamie Thomton, Kauai’s marine mammal response coordinator. “They both have tracking tags on their backs, so the public might see two seals with the transmitters glued on them.”

Those tags should fall off with the next molting — sometime within the next four months. For now, they’re monitoring dive depth and duration to determine foraging and to determine whether the seals are acting normally.

The first seal to be hooked on Kauai this year was RF28 on May 27 and it was spotted by people from Kauai’s monk seal volunteer program.

“We found the seal at north Larsen’s and it had fishing line coming out of its mouth,” Thomton said. “That type of tackle uses large circle hooks and when you see the line coming out of its mouth like that, it’s a warning sign that they probably swallowed it.”

The second seal to be hooked, RF30, turned out to be a little more of a dramatic capture. It was June 10, at Poipu Beach Park, and there were more than 100 beachgoers playing in the water near the baby pool when lifeguards saw the seal swimming back and forth in front of the tower.

“They asked everyone to leave the baby pool so that it would go in there,” Thomton said, “and then we were able to crowd her to the keiki pool.”

Thomton said while he and eight other volunteers were crowding the injured seal toward the edge of the pool, lifeguards explained what was going on for the onlookers over the bullhorn.

“We captured the animal and all of the several hundred people on the beach applauded,” Thomton said. “With all of those people watching, there was some pressure to do well, that’s for sure, but we got her into the shallow water and were able to catch her.”

Both seals were around 150 pounds and were taken, individually, to Oahu by the Coast Guard in transport cages.

“For both of them, it ended up being a large, barbed circle hook that was in the back of the mouth, around the tongue,” Thomton said. “That kind of serious hooking would have been fatal if we hadn’t caught them.”

He said the first hook, the one embedded in RF28, had to be cut in half and the barb had to be pushed through the tongue in order to avoid further tissue damage. The second hook, embedded into RF30, was less severe and was pushed out.

Typically, Kauai sees three or four seals hooked annually, according to Thomton. So far this year there’s been a total of five hookings in the Main Hawaiian Islands, with two of the hooks being ingested and no deaths as a result.

Over the past several decades, since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration began their count, a total of 148 seals have been hooked in the Main Hawaiian Islands, with 16 of them being ingested and two causing death.

Preventing unwanted hookings is a top priority for management agencies, as well as for fishermen, and one way to lower those numbers is to take advantage of the barbless hooks circle hooks program, rolled out by the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Kurt Kawamoto, a fisheries biologist with NOAA, explained how to make a barbless hook in a recent news release sent to TGI. He suggested using a pair of pliers to smash down the barb.

“Once you smash down the barbs on these hooks, they become self-shedding, so that was the main idea behind it,” Kawamoto said. “It’s easy for a fish, or a seal or a turtle to get rid of the hook themselves.”

Thomton said he hasn’t seen animals remove the hooks themselves, but he said that’s the theory. In reality, he said, it makes it much easier to take the hook out once the animal has become ensnared.

The other way to help prevent unwanted marine animal deaths from untargeted hookings is to report it when something unexpected does get on the line.

“It can become fatal if someone hooks a seal and doesn’t report it,” Thomton said. “We strongly encourage fishermen to call it in so we can catch the seal and take the hook out.”

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