HONOLULU — State and federal officials are urging visitors to behave properly when faced with marine wildlife after recent social media posts depicting interference with critically-endangered Hawaiian monk seals provoked an uproar online.
Representatives of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority addressed the incidents at a press conference Friday morning.
“Our marine animals are both culturally important and ecologically unique to Hawai‘i. They should be treated with respect, always, both for the people of Hawai‘i and for general animal welfare,” Brian Neilson, administrator for the DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources, said. “… The people of Hawai‘i live around these animals daily. They’re part of our lives, our culture and our identity. Harassing them for fun, or a photo op, or the post on social media is incredibly disrespectful.”
One TikTok video, posted to the Instagram account @hhhviral, depicts a woman touching a monk seal resting on a Kaua‘i beach. Disturbed, the animal snaps its jaws in response, which the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement is currently investigating. Another video, posted to the same account, shows a man touching a seal beneath a rocky outcropping.
Hawaiian monk seals are protected by the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Hawai‘i state law, which classifies harassment of the species as a Class C felony. Perpetrators can face up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine.
DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) Chief Jason Redulla asked beachgoers who witness such incidents to utilize the free “DLNRTip” smartphone app; the DOCARE hotline at 643-DLNR; or the NOAA hotline at 888-256-9840.
“Going forward, DOCARE officers have been instructed to investigate cases of wildlife harassment and to refer them to county prosecutors for prosecution,” Redulla said. “Our officers cover more than 700 miles of shoreline in addition to millions of acres of state land. We cannot be everywhere at every time, and as a result, we rely on witnesses who report when people are too close or are harassing our wildlife.”
In the past two weeks, the DLNRTip app has logged 31 tips regarding seal harassment; 10 tips regarding sea turtle harassment; and two tips regarding spinner dolphin harassment, according to Redulla, who noted many of the tips concerned the two seal encounters already reported by the news media.
“If you observe harassment of our protected species, remember, it could take some time for the authorities to arrive on scene,” Redulla said. “So, if the harassment does not stop, please provide any video or photos to law enforcement when they arrive, or please send it and report it via the tip app.”
A recently published NOAA action plan reports only 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals, which are endemic to the islands, are alive in the world today.
“We greatly appreciate the community’s concern … regarding the monk seal incidents that have been posted on social media recently,” NOAA Fisheries’ Marine Wildlife Management Coordinator Adam Kurtz said. “We hope that these concerning videos will drive positive change and increase the awareness for some of the issues that these species face.
Kurtz said the “top message” is to keep a safe distance.
“That means 10 feet for sea turtles; 50 feet for Hawaiian monk seals; 50 yards for dolphins and small whales; and 100 yards for humpback whales,” Kurtz said.
Kalani Ka‘ana‘ana, chief brand officer of the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, discussed ongoing messaging campaigns made in partnership with NOAA and DLNR that address the issue.
“This education isn’t something that just started in response to recent events,” he said. “It’s something that we’ve continually messaged for a number of years.”
In addition to producing public service announcements distributed to airlines and hotels, the HTA also funds community organizations “who are actually dealing with these species and educating and interacting with visitors,” Ka‘ana‘ana said. “The guys who are setting up the ropes and putting up the signs (around resting seals), we’re funding them, too.”
HTA is utilizing targeted social media advertising, as well, according to Ka‘ana‘ana.
“Organic posts aren’t going to get the eyeballs we need,” he said. “So, we’ve been investing in paid social, to make sure that these videos are seen by visitors.”
This article was updated to correct the NOAA hotline number.
Scott Yunker, general assignment reporter, can be reached at 245-0437 or firstname.lastname@example.org.