The seal had been rescued as a pup, cared for, and released in January. Its body was found in March with blunt-force trauma.

Federal officials believe someone intentionally killed the same endangered Hawaiian monk seal that had just been rehabilitated as a pup months earlier and released back into the wild with a better chance at survival.

They’re offering a reward of up to $5,000 for any information that leads a successful prosecution in the killing.

The female seal RQ76, also known as Malama, was reported dead at ‘Ohikilolo, a beach between Kea’au Beach Park and Makua Valley, on March 13, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries division. 

Malama’s body had blunt force trauma wounds, and forensic experts later concluded the seal was most likely killed intentionally, according to Stefanie Gutierrez, a Fisheries communications specialist. 

Malama monk seal
The Hawaiian monk seal RQ76, also known as Malama, was photographed during a rehabilitation stint on Hawaii Island between August 2022 and January 2023. The seal was found dead from blunt-force trauma in March, officials say. (The Marine Mammal Center, NOAA Permit #24359/2023)

NOAA authorities aren’t saying more about the case because their investigation is ongoing. They hadn’t publicly disclosed Malama’s death until Tuesday. “It was important for us, given the initial findings in this case, not to announce anything before we had conducted a full scope of analysis,” NOAA officials said in a statement.

However, Gutierrez said in an email Tuesday that she and her colleagues were “heartbroken” by what happened.

The Fisheries’ Pacific Regional Office added in a separate post that “Malama was a seal close to many of our hearts.” 

As a pup, the seal was rescued in August from Manana Island, off Oahu’s Windward Coast, and flown via the U.S. Coast Guard to the Marine Mammal Center’s Monk Seal hospital, Ke Kai Ola, on Hawaii island. 

Fisheries officials had determined that the seal, then about 2 months old, was too small and malnourished after its nursing period had ended and would need special care to survive, the division stated in an online post this past August.

Students at Malama Honua Charter School in Waimanalo, not far from Manana, named the seal pup Malama around the time of her rescue, according to Fisheries. 

The name means to care for, nurture or protect in Hawaiian.

Malama was released back into the wild in good health in January, according to Fisheries. “After release, she was observed regularly in good body condition and exhibiting normal seal behavior,” the division further stated.

Now, authorities are trying to determine who or what killed this critically important seal that was one of more than 1,500 monk seals left in the Hawaiian archipelago, according to wildlife officials. 

Some 16 monk seals, not including Malama, have been confirmed to be intentionally killed by  humans in Hawaii since 2009, according to NOAA.

The population has seen a modest, annual growth of about 2% since 2013 and crested at around 1,600 in 2022, according to NOAA Fisheries Pacific Island Region.

About 25% of those seals live in the main Hawaiian islands.

Some 16 monk seals, not including Malama, have been confirmed to be intentionally killed by humans in Hawaii since 2009, according to NOAA. Malama is the second suspected intentional killing of a monk seal on Oahu, according to NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Region.

“Hawaiian monk seals are a natural part of the Hawaiian marine ecosystem, and we believe people and seals can—and should—peacefully coexist in the islands,” the federal office said in a statement Tuesday.

The animals also face peril from toxoplasmosis, a disease that originates in cat feces, and from fishing hooks and nets. 

At least three monk seals were intentionally killed on Molokai in 2021, including a female monk seal that was found shot in the head. That prompted state officials with the Division of Conservation and Resource Enforcement to seek the public’s help in finding who was responsible.

All of the Molokai cases remain unsolved, and DOCARE hasn’t gotten many leads, according to Dan Dennison, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources.

NOAA encourages anyone with information regarding Malama’s death to call its enforcement hotline at (800) 853-1964.

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