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Investigations Continue in Monk Seal Deaths

Four Hawaiian monk seals have been found dead in the state since mid-November – and three of those have been on Molokai.

Three of the four deaths have been deemed of suspicious causes by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials after completing necropsies, or animal autopsies. The first death occurred on Molokai in mid-November, when an adult male seal’s body was discovered on the southwest shore.

The second, a young female, was also found dead on the island’s southwest shore, late last month. Human interaction is suspected in both cases, according to NOAA Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator Jeff Walters. He said further details are being withheld during the ongoing investigations.

A young male Hawaiian monk seal was then found dead several days later on Molokai’s west coastline. Evidence was inconclusive in saying determining whether or not the third death was suspicious but tissue samples are being tested further.

All seals found dead on Molokai had been born in Kalaupapa, and one was second generation offspring, whose mother was also born in Kalaupapa.

A fourth death on Kauai last Tuesday is also believed suspicious by officials.

Rising Tensions
Some on Molokai, particularly local fishermen, blame monk seals for depleting fish populations, and tensions have been rising over the past several years as the monk seal population in the Main Hawaiian Islands has been slowly increasing.

Molokai activist Walter Ritte has taken a strong stand in supporting the critically endangered species. In a statement released last month, he emphasized Hawaiian monk seals are native to the area, and need to be treated with respect.

“The death of these Hawaiian Monk Seals on Molokai is an indication of a dangerous trend that must be stopped,” he said. “The seals are now the easy targets of blame for the many ills of our depleting fisheries. [But] these seals are not only Hawaiian, but have been here longer than the Hawaiians.”

Nearly Extinct
Walters said the recent rate of deaths is not sustainable if the species is to survive. “Losing four like this is not a good thing, especially if three are not natural deaths,” he said.

With fewer than 1100 monk seals surviving today, each individual is important to saving the population, said the Department of Land and Natural Resource (DLNR)’s Elia Herman. The population is already declining statewide at a rate of 4 percent per year – a rate at which scientists predict the species could disappear in 50 to 100 years.

Harassing or killing a Hawaiian monk seal is against state and federal law, with penalties of up to five years imprisonment and up to $50,000.

Herman said a reward to obtain tips on the causes of the deaths might be set this week. Anyone with related information is asked to call NOAA’s hotline at 1-800-853-1964 or DLNR’s Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement at (808) 873-3990.


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