ANAHOLA, Kauai — The suspicious deaths of three Hawaiian monk seals on Kauai beaches — including one that officials believe was shot — late last year highlight the dangers threatening the recovery of the endangered species.
While the recent deaths remain under investigation, a new study found that human activity ranging from deliberate killings to fishing hooks was to blame for more than half of all known seal deaths in the islands over the past quarter century.
The first seal was found dead with apparent gunshot wounds in September, according to information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said officials believed the second seal was believed to have been beaten to death in November. The NOAA said fisheries officials have not stated, suggested, nor received any information that a seal was beaten.
The third was found on Dec. 2 in the same area as the other two near Kauai’s Anahola Beach Park.
Staffing limitations related to the COVID-19 pandemic and other resource shortages have delayed completion of full investigations in all three cases, according to NOAA.
The agency also has offered a $20,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible.
But a Native Hawaiian community activist here who follows marine mammal issues and has been used as a resource by investigators trying to determine who killed the seals said the animals remain the subject of community hostility.
Many community members cling to mistaken beliefs that monk seals compete with local fishermen and consume a significant portion of what could be their catch, said Nalani Kaneakua, the Anahola activist.
Some community members also dispute whether the monk seal is accurately called a native animal, despite the fact that the seal’s presence through hundreds of years of Hawaiian history has been clearly documented.
That remains true, she said, even after years of public education programming designed to neutralize erroneous assumptions.
“I went down to the beach and talked to a lot of the local boys and their uncles,” she said. “They hate the seals. I shared hard core facts and figures with them. They still don’t buy it. These monk seals date back to the time of creation of the Hawaiian Islands.
“It’s heartbreaking every time I hear about one of these deaths. I tell them: ‘The seal is more Hawaiian than you are.’ Our culture has become so disconnected that they forget that the seal is one of us.”
The Hawaiian monk seal is one of the most endangered seal species and is protected under the Endangered Species Act and Hawaii state law, meaning it is illegal to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap or otherwise harm them.
In a newly published paper in the journal Marine Mammal Science, a research team found causes attributable to human activity are responsible for more than half of the 114 deaths of seals that occurred in the main Hawaiian Islands between 1992 and 2019.
These so-called anthropogenic causes of death include beatings and other types of deliberate killings, drownings caused by entanglement in things like fishing nets and seals who die after swallowing fish hooks.
Seals occasionally drown for natural reasons, but fishing gear entanglement has emerged as one of the most lethal risks the animals face in the wild.
The team also argued that toxoplasmosis — which accounted for 14% of the seal deaths — should be classified as caused by humans as it’s caused by ingestion of a parasite common to house cat feces.
Monk seals sometimes ingest the feline waste after it washes off the islands. The researchers cautioned that toxoplasmosis may not be the cause of all such deaths as a small number of other pathogens can be responsible.
Only about 300 of the estimated seal population of about 1,400 live on Hawaii’s inhabited islands. The vast majority live in the remote Northwest Hawaiian Islands and have far less human contact.
However, the large corps of monk seal volunteer observers and full-time staff on Oahu and Kauai make monitoring the Main Hawaiian Islands population far more straightforward.
The research team included a Honolulu-based NOAA veterinarian who is considered to be one of the most knowledgeable experts in the field. Others on the team were a Montana-based biological consultant, a University of Hawaii researcher at the Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and Marine Mammal Pathology Services, based in Olney, Maryland.
The NOAA veterinarian, Dr. Michelle Barbieri, urged caution in evaluating the three suspicious seal deaths, saying the public needs to understand that deliberate killings are only part of a broader picture of human-caused seal fatalities.
“I think we’re still putting these three most recent deaths in context,” Barbieri said in a phone interview last month. “We have an ongoing investigation. It would be premature to lump them together one way or another.”
The condition of the seal carcasses often frustrates investigators since they may be badly decomposed by the time they’re found, making it impossible to identify a specific cause of death. Even when there is a necropsy — the animal equivalent of an autopsy — the situation may still be unclear. Cases of trauma may not be entirely straightforward, she said.
“Grossly, we might see something that appears consistent with hemorrhage. What the pathologist sees (from tissue samples taken during the necropsy) is whether that hemorrhage happened before the seal died,” she said. “It’s a very layered process. It doesn’t end with the necropsy.”
An example of that type of challenge came in 2015 when a seemingly well-nourished dead male seal was found on a beach here. Volunteers and a veterinarian who works for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources responded, initially isolating the carcass as if the site was a crime scene.
When turned over, the seal had a severe wound on the bottom of the head. Initially, it was assumed to be from a machete blow, but months of subsequent investigation determined that the cause of death was a propeller strike — the first such death recorded in at least 20 years.
Kaneakua agreed that the apparent deliberate killings are but a small fraction of all the deaths of seals. She said she once intervened with a fisherman who thought seals were taking a lot of the catch from his nets. She helped him make slight changes in how he set the nets and the problem was solved, she said.
“I’m from this area. I’m always on the beach. I’m dumbfounded. I don’t know why, who, what. I do know the seals are not well-received. I don’t know why,” she said.
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