A third monk seal was found dead on Molokai Wednesday and officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are working to determine the cause of death.

The discovery comes after news last week that NOAA is investigating the deaths of two other monk seals in which foul play is suspected.

A necropsy will be conducted to try to determine the cause of death of the monk seal found dead this week, according to Jeff Walters, the Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator for NOAA. He said no additional information was available at this time, but that results of the necropsy could be in late Thursday.

The monk seal deaths come at a time when tensions between local fishermen and NOAA have escalated as the agency considers expanding protections for the endangered species around the main Hawaiian islands.

Since the 1980s, the seals have been protected by a critical habitat designation around the remote, northwest Hawaiian islands. The designation means that any activity that entails federal funding, federal permits or a federal action, must be reviewed by NOAA’s Fisheries Service to ensure that the seal population won’t be adversely impacted. The same protections are currently under review for the main Hawaiian islands.

As part of NOAA’s review process, officials held community meetings throughout the islands in recent months. The sessions were packed with local fishermen who strongly voiced their opposition to the critical habitat expansion, citing concerns that the protections would curb their fishing rights. Many fishermen also voiced anger toward monk seals, recounting stories of aggressive encounters with the mammals and attempts by the seals to steal their catch.

The controversy has become a political issue. Former Gov. Linda Lingle and Rep. Cynthia Thielen have both released statements critical of the increased protections.

The situation has been further inflamed by a separate proposal by NOAA to transfer up to 60 pups from the northwest Hawaiian islands to the main Hawaiian islands to try to increase survival rates.

The tensions have raised concerns about an increase in attacks on monk seals.

Walter Ritte, a long-time community activist on Molokai, called news of last week’s deaths “a dangerous trend that must be stopped.”

“The elders are saying that these monk seals are not Hawaiian. Our young people are calling these seals an invasive species brought in by government,” he said in a statement. “The seals are now the easy targets of blame for the many ills of our depleting fisheries. We need to stand up for the truth: These seals are not only Hawaiian, but have been here longer than the Hawaiians.”

In the northwest Hawaiian islands, the monk seal population has declined from a total of 1,200 to 900 seals during the past 10 years, according to NOAA. The seals have been steadily increasing in the main Hawaiian islands in recent years, raising hopes that the population could be saved from extinction.

About the Author