Feds plan to euthanize aggressive monk seals
Update 8/16/11: NMFS was unable to locate the two seals and so they were not euthanized. While we are glad that they have not been killed, we remain concerned about the fate of the young pups born on Kure Atoll and hope none are lost in attacks from these two aggressive seals. NOAA insists that they conferred with other agencies and stakeholders, but we think the process could have been more transparent as the general public did not know what was going on until it was too late for input. Also, it should be said that the proposal was to euthanize a single monk seal, not two (as the other showed aggressive behavior, but not at a level that justified killing). This issue obviously has many layers--we'll continue to update as we learn more.
A clandestine mission to euthanize two monk seals was made public today in a press statement from the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (PMNM) Management Board. The decision to kill these seals was made by Michael Tosatto of the Pacific Islands Regional Office in the National Marine Fisheries Service, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The decision is drawing considerable criticism given the fact that not all of the alternatives to killing the seals have been fully explored. A local news poll shows the majority of people support finding an alternative to euthanizing the seals. (Link to news poll).
Most disappointing is Mr. Tosatto's decision not to investigate the use of testosterone inhibitors to limit the aggressive behavior of these seals. Testosterone inhibitors have been used in other species to successfully prevent this type of male aggression on immature females, but has not been studied in monk seals. Why not?! Pup deaths due to the aggression of male seals has been a long standing problem in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands -- these two seals in particular have been doing this for several years!!! Why act now to kill them, without at least trying biomedical interventions in the interim years?! And what are we to expect for future aggressive male seals? This problem is expected to only get worse as the monk seal population continues to decline in the immediate future. It seems negligent for NOAA to anticipate an increase in male aggression and not investigate alternative management tools other than killing the seals.
While the press statement points a recent spike in aggression as the "emergency" basis for this action, it is my understanding that the real "emergency" is the anticipated lack of federal funding for future voyages to the NWHI -- that is to say, if they don't kill the seals now, they may never have the chance to. This is not a real emergency -- it is just poor decision-making.
NOAA has had years to address the aggression of these two male seals and chose to do nothing. And is now using budget shortfalls to justify an unnecessarily extreme action. Priority funding should be given to saving the monk seal from extinction -- if at least to prevent "emergency" decisions like this one. Let's cut the A/C at the plush PMNM and NMFS offices, before we give up on funding future monk seal recovery efforts in the NWHI.
The federal government made a policy decision in 1976 to not allow the Hawaiian monk seal to go extinct. Since then, however, the U.S. has done little to actually fulfill that policy decision. What will it take for the U.S. to step up to its natural resources obligations?
Moreover, when funds are short is exactly when decisionmakers should rely more (not less) on the public process. Mr. Tosatto purposefully kept this unpopular decision secret -- that was a significant part of his mistake.
With greater public involvement, who knows what we could have accomplished. We may have had the leverage to pressure an institution like the Waikiki Aquarium or Sea Life Park to take the seals -- even temporarily -- instead of killing them. We could have forced the issue of studying testosterone inhibitors or other biomedical interventions to prevent male aggressions -- instead of killing them. The public should be seen as an ally, not an obstacle, in the collective effort to save our endangered species. It should not take a series of anonymous phone calls and pointed emails to force this issue into the sunlight.
There may be little we can do at this point to save these two monk seals, but at the very least we can impress upon the powers-that-be that they botched this one and we expect far better in the future -- starting with a more transparent decision-making process.
Photo credit: USFWS