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Fifth Circuit Judge Kathleen Watanabe on Wednesday sentenced 20-year-old Shylo Kaena Akuna of Lihue to serve four years in prison for harassing a critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal last year at Salt Pond Beach Park in Hanapepe, Kauai.
This comes just one month after Akuna was sentenced to a year in jail for the unrelated theft and slaughter of a goat from a pasture on Kauai’s west side in January 2016, according to the Kauai County prosecutor’s office.
“Animal abuse is often a precursor to other types of violence and cannot be tolerated in our community,” Kauai Prosecutor Justin Kollar said in a statement.
Bystanders recorded a video of Akuna beating and throwing sand at a 17-year-old pregnant Hawaiian monk seal at the beach park on April 26, 2016.
The video went viral on social media and was brought to the attention of law enforcement, a Kauai County news release said, noting that Akuna was “apparently highly intoxicated” at the time.
“Our natural environment is crucial to us in Hawaii; this includes respect for our endangered species,” Kollar said. “To the best of our knowledge this is the first conviction under the felony monk seal harassment statute and we are satisfied that the sentence was appropriate and will serve to protect the community from this defendant.”
The maximum sentence was five years in jail and a $50,000 fine.
Kollar thanked the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for helping to close the case, especially DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement Officers Warren Tavares and Kalani Addington as well as NOAA Special Agent Brandon Jim On.
“This sentence sends a very strong message that attacks on any of our wildlife resources will not be tolerated,” DLNR Director Suzanne Case said in a statement. “We very much appreciate the court, in this case, recognizing that the people of Hawaii expect and demand full justice for these types of severe and senseless wildlife crimes.”
Akuna is also facing charges in an unrelated case stemming from an alleged March burglary of a room at the Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort and Spa in Poipu.
Hawaii monk seals, one of the most endangered marine mammals on the planet, have been protected by federal law since 1976.
The most recent population estimate in January was 1,400 seals, a slight increase that has given scientists a “glimmer of hope.”
Most of the seals — roughly 1,100 — live in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands more than 1,000 miles from Honolulu. The rest live in the main Hawaiian Islands, where they face far more threats, ranging from fish hooks and nets to a new threat, parasitic diseases spread by feral cats.
RK30, the seal Akuna harassed, has deep scars from fishing line entanglements and shark bites. Scientists have called the seal a survivor and noted that she has birthed at least seven pups.
Charles Littnan, lead scientist for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, has said the population is stable or growing in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, but in the Main Hawaiian Islands it has stalled.
Kollar believes this is the longest sentence anyone has ever received for harassing or killing a Hawaiian monk seal, according to a spokesman for his office, Alden Alayvilla.
In the past, there have been cases in which nothing was done even when people knew who killed a seal, as happened in 2012 on Molokai.
Tens of thousands of dollars in rewards have been offered for information leading to the arrest of those suspected of killing monk seals in the past. From 2009 to 2012, humans were suspected of killing at least eight monk seals in the Main Hawaiian islands.
Charles Vidinha, a Kauai resident, received a three-month jail term and a $25 fine for killing a female seal in 2009. At the time, it was Hawaii’s only monk seal killing that resulted in a conviction.
Anyone who witnesses a monk seal or any other endangered or threatened species being threatened or injured in any manner by a person is urged to immediately call the NOAA Hotline at 1-800-853-1964 or the DOCARE statewide hotline at 643-DLNR.