Monk seal gets tangled in net, drowns
By Diana Leone
Advertiser staff writer
A 9-month-old Hawaiian monk seal was found drowned in a gill net Tuesday offshore from Waimanalo, the third such death in Hawai'i since 2006.
The female, nicknamed Mikala by monk seal volunteers, was seen floating offshore of Bellows Beach at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday and brought to shore by lifeguards, said Charles Littnan, lead scientist for NOAA Fisheries' monk seal research program.
The animal, scientifically classified as RA-14, was entangled in a gill net, also known as a lay net.
A necropsy of the animal determined it drowned, Littnan said.
It was the sixth confirmed monk seal drowning in a gill net since 1976, and the third since 2006, Littnan said. At least one additional seal death is believed to have been caused by net entanglement.
"When you're looking at an endangered species, every animal is important," Littnan said. "The fact this was a young female — that's the future of the species. Losing any young female is a tremendous loss to the population, as well as that individual."
State law requires that users of gill nets register their nets with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and inspect nets in use every two hours, removing any illegal or unwanted catch.
A DLNR spokeswoman couldn't confirm yesterday whether the net found tangled around Mikala had an identification number that could identify the net's owner.
The state DLNR has begun an investigation into the seals' death and has the
net that entangled it. NOAA Fisheries, the lead agency for protecting marine mammals, could also investigate, said spokeswoman Wende Goo.
There are an estimated 150 monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands and about 950 in the northwestern part of the chain. The seals live in the wild only in Hawai'i and as a group have had steep overall population declines in recent years.
The seals are critically endangered and protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The potential fine
for killing an endangered species is up to $50,000.
Veteran monk seal volunteer D.B. Dunlap was upset with the news that Mikala was dead.
In the 10 years he's spent most of his daylight hours observing seals on O'ahu, Dunlap said he's known of four seals dying of entanglement.
"I've lost four of these animals that I know personally. Three were Rabbit Island kids," he said, referring to the islet and the stretch
between Makapu'u and Waimanalo.
Because of his time spent watching out for the seals,
"I am at the extreme end of the situation" on whether gill nets should be banned, Dunlap said. "I think they should be banned from the galaxy. They should be off the planet."
Laws restricting the use of gill nets aren't effective because they aren't adhered to and aren't enforced adequately, Dunlap said.
"It's always a tragedy when we lose any seal like this," said Jeff Walters, NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Team leader. "She never had a chance to have even one pup."
Walters wasn't sure whether the state or federal agency would take the lead in any investigation. He was on Kaua'i yesterday, checking on a newborn seal pup and its mother.
Despite the bad news of the O'ahu seal's death, Walters noted that there are currently three known nursing monk seal pups in the main Hawaiian Islands — one each on Kaua'i, Moloka'i and Kaho'olawe — and a number of pregnant females.