Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Saving Hawaiian Monk Seals: 4 Ways You Can Help

Years ago when I first landed in Hawaii, seeing a Hawaiian monk seal haul out on a beach was a rare event. It was almost unheard of, no matter how far off the beaten path you hiked, surfed or swam. The first place I ever saw a monk seal was in the university-run Waikiki Aquarium. To see one in the wild, I would've had to journey all the way to Papahanaumokuakea National Marine Monument in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Recently, many more of these endangered pinnipeds have been hauling out on beaches where people also go on the main Hawaiian Islands, from Kaena Point State Park on Oahu to Salt Pond Beach Park on Kauai to Hookipa Beach on Maui. That's good news for hikers and wildlife lovers who want to glimpse the seals up close, especially spectators who are respectful enough to leave the resting seals a buffer zone and keep back at least 150ft. 

Now the bad news. In the past month, four Hawaiian monk seals have died in what Hawaii's Department of Land & Natural Resources has called "suspicious circumstances," with three deaths on Molokai and the latest on Kauai. Although investigations are ongoing, it seems that these seals were intentionally killed by humans.

Bewilderment and sadness are my first responses. But these tragic events shouldn't be too surprising, because even here on the California coast I've seen northern elephant seals threatened with violence by beach visitors and even shot with pellet guns, despite their protected status as a marine species brought back from the brink of extinction after commercial hunting during the 19th century. 

Hawaiian monk seals are the most endangered marine mammals in the Hawaiian Islands, which also makes them the rarest pinnipeds in US waters. According to NOAA, scientists estimate that the total population of Hawaiian monk seals -- already shrinking at an alarming 4% annually -- will dip below 1000 individuals within the next few years. It's time for all of us to pitch in and help!

  • Do not disturb. Hawaiian monk seals haul out on island beaches to rest. When humans approach them, it not only disturbs their recuperation, but can scare them back into the ocean without enough energy to feed, fend off predators or take care of their pups. Always stand back at least 150ft, turn off the flash on your camera and speak quietly.
  • Call someone. If you see a monk seal that may be in distress or the victim of a crime, or just want to report a sighting no one else has noticed yet, call the appropriate hotline (for a full list of contact numbers, click here).
  • Stay informed. Follow Hawaiian monk seal news and share what you've learned with your friends and family. Sign up for email alerts nonprofit organizations such as Na Mea Hulu, and the Hawai'i Wildlife Fund, which you can also find on Facebook and Twitter.

Related posts: 
NPR Interview: Hiking and Ecotourism in Hawaii
Hidden Hiking Trails in West Maui
Welcome to Top Trails: Hiking on Maui!

Photos: USFWS Pacific 
http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwspacific / CC BY 2.0