The most recent body was discovered by a dentist walking her dogs on the beach.
Slumped in the sand was the carcass of a Hawaiian monk seal. She knew it was dead because insects were swarming the body.
It couldn’t have been there long.
Boki Chung, who reported the dead seal to federal authorities, said she had walked the same strip of beach on Molokai’s south shore near Kawela Stream the previous day, too.
As she moved closer to the corpse to try and spot any identifiable features, Chung said the seal’s whiskered snout and one of its big, round eyes appeared to be bruised, as if the animal had been clubbed in the head.
“Why would somebody do that?” she said.
No one knows exactly what killed the year-old female monk seal known as L11, one of the pups born on the island in 2020.
But the discovery of its body on Sept. 19 has set off an investigation into how it died. Law enforcement officers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources are conducting the inquiries.
Five other monk seal deaths recorded on Molokai so far this year are also being investigated by federal and state conservation officials.
Two of the seals, found on the island’s west end in late April, died as a result of “human-inflicted trauma,” according to NOAA. A cause of death could not be determined for three other seals discovered earlier in the year; two of them because the bodies were too severely decomposed and the third because the body was no longer on the shoreline when responders arrived with a truck to haul it away, the agency said.
The carcass of L11, the most recent seal to turn up dead on the Friendly Isle, has been flown to Oahu, where it’s being kept frozen awaiting a post-mortem examination. Authorities say the surge of COVID-19 disease in Hawaii is preventing NOAA from conducting a timely necropsy to determine a cause of death.
Conservation officials describe the spate of six seal deaths on Molokai in a nine-month span as unprecedented, especially for a species with an estimated total population of 1,400 animals, only about 300 of which reside in the main Hawaiian islands. The animal is mainly found in the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
Both NOAA and the DLNR refused to comment on the seal deaths. The DLNR referred general questions about monk seals to NOAA, which did not respond to inquiries about the number of monk seal deaths in recent years nor common threats faced by the critically endangered species.
Monk seals are threatened by disease from humans and other animals, fish hooks and nets, shark predation, as well as intentional killings. In recent years at least four seals have died from gunshots — including a pregnant female — and eight have died from blunt force trauma, according to a NOAA fact sheet.
Scientists say what’s behind at least some of the killings is animosity driven by a false belief that the seals, scarcely seen in the main Hawaiian islands in previous generations, are an invasive species that competes with shoreline fishermen for the food they catch to feed their families.
A review of NOAA press releases indicates there have been at least three other seal deaths statewide this year — one on Kauai and two on Oahu.
One of the seals found dead on Oahu likely drowned after getting caught in a fishing net. The animal’s body was too heavily decomposed to say for sure.
The other seal found dead on Oahu died from toxoplasmosis, a disease found in cat feces that has caused at least 14 monk seal deaths in recent years.
A cause of death of the seal that turned up dead on Kauai in February is unknown.
When Todd Yamashita learned that the seal known as L11 had died, he says he cried on and off for a day.
As operations manager for the Hawaii Marine Animal Response on Molokai, Yamashita had monitored L11 since birth, trying to keep the seal out of harm’s way.
The seal had a habit of hauling herself onto some of the island’s busiest east side beaches, staying there to rest all day. Sometimes the seal would make herself at home on people’s beachfront lawns.
Whenever the seal would put itself in a crowded or precarious situation, Yamashita, whose job includes documenting monk seal sightings and intervening when seals get hurt, said he’d keep out a watchful eye.
“I knew she was going to get into trouble,” the Molokai native said. “She was too friendly, too curious.”
Since the Covid-19 pandemic started, Yamashita said field workers from NOAA have stopped traveling to Molokai as they typically would to tag newborn seals or perform in-field necropsies of those that have died.
So when L11 appeared to have a medical problem with her eye earlier this year, he said he trained a few local surfers and fishermen to help him look after her. The eye issue eventually cleared up, he said.
Like Chung, Yamashita said he thinks L11’s death could have been intentional, although he doesn’t have any evidence to prove it other than what he discerned to be bruising on the animal’s face.
“I’m not a scientist, I’m not a biologist, and I’m also not in law enforcement,” he said. “I might be the lowest man on the totem pole, but I’m also the guy on the ground. And if I had to guess, I would say that all six of these (deaths) were probably human-caused.”
“There’s definitely a pattern,” he said. “And it definitely doesn’t look right.”
Hunted to near-extinction in the 1800s, Hawaiian monk seals have experienced a modest population rebound following hundreds of years of species decline.
Whereas a seal sighting a couple of decades ago in the main Hawaiian islands was incredibly scarce, the animals are now occasionally found resting on beaches or rocky shorelines from Niihau to the Big Island.
In 2015, federal authorities announced a conservation goal: Increase the population of seals in the main Hawaiian islands to more than 500 animals.
A Hawaiian monk seal named Rocky famously gave birth to a female pup in June 2017 on Kaimana Beach in Waikiki, delivering thousands of tourists a chance to view the world’s rarest seal species and generating public enthusiasm for the species’ comeback from extinction’s brink. A Civil Beat webcam attracted more than 1 million people worldwide to watch Rocky and her pup, Kaimana, for weeks until the two ventured back out into open water.
The seal’s growing presence, however, has been met with some resistance.
Although monk seals are endemic to Hawaii, existing nowhere else in the world, their near-absence from society for so many generations — and the lack of reference to seals in traditional Hawaiian chants and stories — has led some people to question whether they are truly a native species.
Another misconception is that monk seals eat everything in sight, competing for the same fish sought by subsistence fishermen.
Scientists say the seals are not significant competitors for the local fish supply and do not target most popular gamefish species, such as ulua, papio and oio.
But those who subscribe to the incorrect notions that monk seals don’t belong in Hawaii, or that they take food off local dinner plates, tend to view the animal negatively.
“‘It is your God-given right to annihilate anything that comes in the way between you and your fish that feeds your family’ — that is a sentiment that runs deep, especially when you cross it with misinformation,” Yamashita said.
“If you’re being told, ‘This seal is the government’s lapdog and it was introduced by them into your backyard to take the fish away from you,’ and ‘the seal has more rights than you do’ — when you’re being fed all of this misinformation, something bad is going to happen,” he said. “That’s how most seals have been killed over here.”
For a time, Molokai fisherman Kelson “Mac” Poepoe said he was against the repopulation of monk seals on Molokai. He had been under the impression that the species was eating and scaring away fish schools that subsistence fishermen like himself like to eat.
Then, he said, he started observing the seals, talking with NOAA officials and watching videos of the species’ underwater behavior. What he learned is that monk seals don’t deplete nearshore fishing stocks and that they can be beneficial to the ecosystem.
“To see a school of fish that we love to eat and to see a monk seal swimming in the same area and not disturb the fish, it woke me up,” he said.
Despite the objections of scientists who study the species, Poepoe said he believes monk seals are native to the Northwestern Hawaiian islands only — not the main islands. However, he said there’s room for the species’ growing presence on Molokai’s shores.
He’s tried to show other shoreline fishermen how monk seals and the fish they like to catch can coexist. But some fishermen continue to harbor tension toward the seals, he said.
“Shoreline fishermen walk down the beach and see the seal as something different (that) wasn’t there before,” he said. “It’s kind of disturbing for them. Their thought is it’s competing (with them) for food.”
When NOAA determined that the two seals found dead on Molokai in April had been intentionally killed, an anti-wildlife poaching group based in North Carolina posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to the perpetrator.
But when a woman disappeared from Molokai in June and a $500 reward was offered for information leading to her whereabouts, the disproportionate sums of money posted for information about a missing person as compared to a pair of seals prompted a rethinking of the money-for-tips strategy, according to Yamashita.
“We’re very sensitive about that,” he said, adding that reward money often doesn’t work to bring in credible information.
So far, no reward has been publicly offered for information about the most recent death of seal L11.
According to Poepoe, money isn’t necessary to find the truth about what happened.
“There’s no secrets,” Poepoe said. “Everything everybody does on Molokai, we’re going to know.”
“The only way to find out is to mingle with the people, which I don’t want to do because of the pandemic,” he said. “But sooner or later it’s going to come out.”
Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by a grant from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.
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