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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, April 26, 2010

Legislature passes seal protection bill


By Coco Zickos
Garden Island

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A Hawaiian monk seal known as Chester takes a break on a beach in Kailua. Harming such seals may become a felony.

Advertiser library photo

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LĪHU'E, Kaua'i Harming a Hawaiian monk seal may soon become a felony. Senate Bill 2441 was unanimously passed by the state House and Senate and sent to Gov. Linda Lingle's office last week.

The legislation would change the existing misdemeanor penalty to a felony, which could mean that a person convicted of "taking" (harming, killing or harassing, for example) an endangered monk seal could face up to a year in jail and a $50,000 fine, according to a press release from the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

"The governor has until July 6 to take action on the measure," Lingle spokesman Russell Pang said. "The bill, along with all the others that are passed, will undergo a thorough review process by the appropriate departments and agencies."

Introduced by state Sen. Gary Hooser, D-7th, (Kaua'i-Ni'ihau), the bill "emerged from a deep concern from monk-seal advocates throughout the state, especially on Kaua'i and Moloka'i, where three seals were recently killed," he said in a statement.

Last year, 78-year-old Charles Vidinha of Anahola pleaded guilty to shooting a pregnant Hawaiian monk seal at Pila'a Beach on Kaua'i's North Shore. He was sentenced by a federal judge to a 90-day prison term, one year of supervised release and a $25 fine.

The killer or killers of a male seal discovered dead April 19, 2009, at Kaumakani have yet to be identified.

A $30,000 reward has been offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction in that case, which is under federal investigation.

"The Hawaiian monk seal is vital to our cultural heritage and ecosystem and the species is in serious trouble," said Hui Ho'omalu i Ka 'Aina vice chair Maka'ala Ka'aumoana, a proponent of the legislation.

"It is our kuleana to do everything we can to help them recover to viable numbers. Each lost seal is a tragedy when we have so few. This law will help ignorant people think twice before killing a Hawaiian monk seal."

Save Our Seal Campaign coordinator Keiko Bonk agreed. "This is a great start to inform our residents and visitors of their responsibility to seriously care for our monk seals and other Hawai'i wildlife found nowhere else on earth," she said in a statement.

An advocate of the bill, Bonk added, "It is my hope that the monk seal will teach us the importance of learning to 'co-habitate' with life in the wild rather than to continue our current path of destruction of the most amazing and complex life on earth."

"The more legislation and the more help they can get, the better," said David Schofield, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's marine mammal response coordinator.

Even though NOAA supports "any of our partners interested in helping with the recovery of the Hawaiian monk seal," state legislation is not the organization's "kuleana," he added.

Education and fostering "acknowledgment at the community level that monk seals are Hawaiian" is more along the lines of where NOAA stands, as opposed to taking a position on legislating stiffer penalties for harming the seals, Schofield said.

"We all need to learn to live with nature and monk seals," he said. "They've been around longer, before the very first people touched foot on the islands."

Fewer than 150 monk seals remain in the Hawaiian Islands, where some 1.2 million people reside. That's an 8,000-to-1 ratio that "does not factor the approximate 6.5 million annual visitors," according to the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

Hooser said in a statement that it is " just not 'pono' to harm this unique Hawaiian species on the verge of extinction."