Monk Seals Should be Saved, Not Shot!
The recent killings of Hawaiian monk seals on Kauai and Molokai have highlighted the divide in our community over the role of this endangered animal. There are monk seal enthusiasts who see them as cuddly cuties on one end and monk seal haters who are killing them on the other extreme. I'd like to think most people are somewhere in the middle (but hopefully not apathetic). I think it's undeniable that seals are nuisances to fishermen, and no doubt they can be aggressive--but that doesn't mean we should hurry their extinction along.
Arguments have been made that the seals aren't native to Hawaii, I'm no expert and while I believe they are indeed native, I wonder why it matters. The truth is that it's estimated that there are less than 1,100 left on earth and only in Hawaii. 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals-- that’s it. Most local high schools have more students than that! Think back to being in high school, now imagine that you and your schoolmates are the only people left on earth. Can you now sense how the death of even one person in the group would be a heavy loss? It doesn't matter if the monk seals are native to the main Hawaiian islands--they are native to earth and are on the brink of not existing. The main Hawaiian Islands may be the last place they can survive. We can survive together.
There is a middle ground here that is not being articulated in mainstream news.
Inappropriate development is one of the most significant factors in the decline of Hawaii’s ocean resources. From shoreline armoring and channelized streams to uncontrolled, contaminated run-off and industrial projects undertaken at sea, the decisions that have allowed construction near the shore and in the ocean have ruined many marine habitats. These habitats are ruined, not only for the seals and other marine wildlife that live there, but for fishers, too. Everything, from hand-line fishing to lay net to limu and opihi picking, suffers when the ocean is damaged.
Now, there is no federal law protecting Native Hawaiian fishers -- there probably should be. BUT! There is a law protecting endangered species and their habitat. Using this law, Hawaii’s oceans can be protected for both seals and subsistence fishers.
With expanded critical habitat protection in place, the federal government will have to think before it acts when it comes to decisions that could affect the ocean. This does not mean that nothing would ever be built near the shore or in the ocean, but it does mean the proponent of the project would have to show their project would not undermine the health of the protected habitat. That means no industrial aquaculture operations... or hotels... or contaminated run-off... or any other action that needs a permit would be allowed if it undermines protected habitat. This is a good thing -- it saves the ocean for the seal... and the fisher. If we had been making decisions this way all along, we may not be in the crisis we find ourselves in today.
By requiring the federal government to think before it acts, critical habitat protections for monk seals will help perpetuate traditional subsistence lifestyles in Hawaii. It will ensure that the ocean resources that both humans and monk seals rely on will be protected from potentially damaging projects -- like federally funded highways or ocean-based energy production projects. (Because, seriously, can you call it “sustainable energy” if it destroys life on earth?)
Yes, monk seals compete with fishers for their catch -- just like every other predator in the ocean: sharks, seabirds, dolphins. Fishers have been coping and out-witting competing wildlife forever. It’s a challenge that cannot be understated -- and gives all the more reason to honor the skill of traditional fishers. But, the fact that monk seals also eat fish, however, is not a reason to hasten their extinction from earth. The fate of the seal is the fate of the native fisher. We should band together to save them both.
Here are some stories that I think offer a pretty fair presentation of the issue: