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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, January 31, 2004

Human contact may be threat to monk seals

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Science Writer

A Hawaiian monk seal appeared in Lahaina this week, exhibiting the same begging behavior — approaching people with its mouth wide open — as the demeanor of a seal on Kaua'i that was later found dead.

There is increasing evidence that contact with humans is changing life for Hawaiian monk seals — and threatening them.

While there is no direct evidence that boaters have been feeding the Maui seal, the signs point that way, said Margaret Akamine, protected species coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries branch in Honolulu.

"We have heard that the seal follows boats in the harbor and well-intentioned people may be feeding it," Akamine said.

That could put both seals and humans at risk, said Brad Ryon, a NOAA Fisheries resource manager.

"If they habituate to humans, they get drawn into human activities that can expose them to life-threatening situations," he said.

Seals in the Islands have been chopped up by propellers after getting too cozy with boats. And some seals have had to be moved out of the state after getting too cozy with humans in the water.

The most recent case was a seal known as RM34, who was born at South Point and took to swimming with the snorkelers at Kealakekua on the Big Island.

"He was very playful with people, hugging or touching them but sometimes he would try a mock mating behavior and he could bite or scratch them," Ryon said. There have been incidents in which seals have held humans underwater during such amorous ventures.

The 2 1/2-year-old RM34 was moved to other locations in Hawai'i, but swam right back. He was finally moved to Johnston Atoll, roughly 700 miles southwest of Honolulu.

Another possible risk is disease, said marine mammal veterinarian Bob Braun, who has been working with Hawaiian monk seals since 1994.

Researchers don't know how serious a risk seals face from diseases they might catch from humans, pets and wild terrestrial animals, but Braun is the principal investigator in a new research program that will try to find out.

A possible indication of the problem is the dead Kaua'i seal, found at the Kapa'a shoreline last week. The animal had been fed fish scraps by boaters at Nawiliwili Harbor, and was occasionally seen begging at other harbors. It appeared to be a mature seal — they live to 25 to 30 years — and had no obvious injuries. Braun sent tissue samples to a Mainland laboratory to test for poisons or disease.

"We don't know the risk to monk seals here, but we do know that many of the situations we have here in Hawai'i have led to the deaths of other seals in other places," he said.

The livestock-borne disease leptospirosis can kill seals and sea lions, cat-borne toxoplasmosis has killed sea otters, and a virus similar to canine distemper has killed seals in Europe.

When there is contact between seals and land creatures, including humans, "the consequences are not good," Akamine said.

Reach Jan TenBruggencate at jant@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 245-3074.