Federal and state officials are asking the public to keep an eye out, document and report any instances of monk seal or other marine wildlife harassment they encounter in the wake of distressing videos posted on social media.
Over the past two weeks, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has received 31 tips via its free DLNRTip app regarding monk seal harassment with most of the reports focused on two well-publicized incidents: one in which a woman visiting Kauai touched a monk seal and another in which a man attempts to pet the marine mammal. There were an additional 10 tips regarding sea turtle harassment and two tips of people pursuing Hawaiian spinner dolphins.
“We know from activity of the past two weeks that many people are very concerned about those that are not following the law when they are around our wildlife, especially monk seals and turtles,” DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) Chief Jason Redulla said Friday during a press conference from Honolulu.
The briefing was called to address an apparent uptick in incidents across the state. Also in attendance were NOAA Fisheries Pacific Region Marine Wildlife Management Coordinator Adam Kurtz; Brian Neilson, administrator, DLNR Division of Aquatic Resources; and Kalani Ka‘ana’ana, chief brand officer, Hawaii Tourism Authority, each of whom spoke about the incidents and what can or will be done, including increasing educational efforts and outreach to visitors before and after arrival.
“Obviously, we need to do more,” Neilson said, also noting several airlines already show public service announcements on Hawaii-bound flights and that those PSAs reach more than 35,000 hotel rooms.
Earlier this week, Gov. David Ige called the videos of visitors touching monk seals “absolutely unacceptable.”
“I’ve seen an increase in distressing videos recently of what appears to be visitors to our state touching and disturbing our endangered native Hawaiian monk seals. I want to be clear that this behavior is absolutely unacceptable,” Ige said in a statement. “Visitors to our islands – you’re asked to respect our people, culture, and laws protecting endangered species that are found nowhere else in the world. For those who don’t, make no mistake, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,”
Marine species in Hawaii, like the monk seal, are protected under both federal and state laws and regulations; and either the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement or DOCARE takes the lead in investigating the violations, depending on the overall circumstances, he explained. For example, in the Kauai case, the federal agency has taken the lead because the couple who admitted touching the seal had already left the state.
“Going forward DOCARE officers have been instructed to investigate cases of wildlife harassment and to refer them to county prosecutors for prosecution,” Redulla said Friday. Hawaii County Prosecutor Kelden Waltjen did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.
Under state law, monk seal harassment is a Class C felony that carries one to five years behind bars, he explained later during the press conference. The state’s Environmental Court can also assess a fine up to $50,000.
“It is quite substantial,” Redulla added.
Kurtz said under federal law they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and/or Endangered Species Act.
“These laws are put into place to protect and conserve populations for generations to come,” he explained later in the press conference. “Hawaiian monk seals in particular are critically endangered; there are only about 1,400 individuals left in the population.”
He urged people to view marine wildlife from a safe distance, providing the following NOAA guidelines:
• 10 feet for sea turtles
• 50 feet for Hawaiian monk seals
• 50 yards (150 feet) for dolphins and small whales
• 100 yards (300 feet or a football field) for humpback whales
With the DOCARE’s officers responsible for more than 700 miles of shoreline — addition to millions of acres of state land —Redulla encouraged the public to download the DLNRTip app and to assist in addressing any harassment incidents by providing details, videos and/or photos. Tips can also be called into the DOCARE hotline at (808) 643-DLNR or NOAA’s Marine Wildlife hotline at (888) 256-9840.
“We cannot be everywhere at ever time and as a result, we rely on witnesses who report when people are too close or are harassing our wildlife,” he said.
But never try to address the harassment yourself, Redulla said after noting he understands that people may become emotional if they encounter a person harassing wildlife like the monk seal, which carries cultural significance. Instead, report and document the incident.
“I absolutely do not believe it is a good idea for people to intervene when these things, just because you don’t know who you’re dealing with. Really, the proper thing is to be a good witness, report it to the proper authorities so that we can take the necessary action,” he said. “We have the tools to be safe, the training to be safe.”
An estimated 1,400 monk seals inhabit the main and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, according to NOAA. Approximately 300 of those seals cruise the waters and haul up on beaches in the main Hawaiian Islands, including about 10 on the Big Island. No pups were born this year.
Sophie Whoriskey, Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Veterinarian at The Marine Mammal Center, told West Hawaii Today on Thursday the Kailua-Kona-based nonprofit is receiving reports of interactions with local monk seals, but nothing like seen on social media out of Kauai.
The Big Island reports range from people trying to get closer to the mammals for photos or even accidentally coming upon a resting seal. Some reports suggested beaches being too crowded for the animals to come ashore for critical rest after foraging in the ocean.
“We have not seen anything like that yet on our island but we are getting increased calls about people crowding monk seals or not giving them enough space,” she said. … “Lots of reports monk seals having to get back into the water when the would otherwise be trying to haul out and rest.”
The center advises that the public can play an important role in the conservation of the endangered species by keeping a few marine wildlife viewing tips in mind when visiting local beaches and wildlife preserves by keeping a safe distance from seals, using the zoom function on cameras and reporting sightings.
A good “rule of thumb” to know if you’re too close to a monk seal is to hold up your thumb straight in front of you, perpendicular to the animal.
“If it covers the whole seal, then you’re good. But if it doesn’t, you’re too close,” Whoriskey said.
To report a sighting, call or text The Marine Mammal Center’s Hawaii Island response team at its 24-hour hotline at (808) 987-0765. To report wildlife harassment, download the DLNRTip app to your smartphone, call DLNR at (808) 643-DLNR or NOAA’s Marine Wildlife hotline at (888) 256-9840.