Give ’em space: officials ask for public help in harassment of marine wildlife
Federal and state officials are calling on the public to keep an eye out for, document and report any instances of harassment by monk seals or other marine animals they encounter as a result of distressing videos posted on social media.
Over the past two weeks, the State Department of Lands and Natural Resources (DLNR) has received 31 tips through its free DLNRTip app regarding monk seal harassment, with most reports focusing on two high-profile incidents: l ‘one in which a woman visiting Kauai touched a monk seal and another in which a man attempted to stroke the marine mammal. There were 10 additional tips regarding harassment of sea turtles and two tips from people chasing Hawaiian longbill dolphins.
“We know from activity over the past two weeks that many people are very concerned about those breaking the law when they are near our wildlife, especially monk seals and turtles,” he said. said Jason, DLNR Head of Resource Conservation and Enforcement (DOCARE). Redulla said Friday at a press conference in Honolulu.
The briefing was called to deal with an apparent increase in incidents across the state. Also in attendance were Adam Kurtz, Marine Wildlife Management Coordinator for NOAA’s Pacific Fisheries Region; Brian Neilson, Administrator, Aquatic Resources Division, DLNR; and Kalani Ka’ana’ana, brand manager, Hawaii Tourism Authority, each of whom spoke about the incidents and what can or will be done, including stepping up educational efforts and outreach to visitors before and after their arrival.
“Obviously, we need to do more,” said Neilson, also noting that several airlines are already posting public service announcements on flights to Hawaii and that these public service announcements are reaching over 35,000. hotel rooms.
Earlier this week, Governor David Ige called videos of visitors touching monk seals “absolutely unacceptable.”
“I have recently seen an increase in distressing videos of what appear to be visitors to our state touching and disturbing our endangered native Hawaiian monk seals. I want to be clear that this behavior is absolutely unacceptable, ”Ige said in a statement. “Visitors to our islands – you are asked to respect our people, our culture and our laws protecting endangered species that are not found anywhere else in the world. For those who do not, make no mistake about it, you will be prosecuted with all the rigor of the law ”,
Marine species in Hawaii, such as the monk seal, are protected by federal and state laws and regulations; and either the NOAA Law Enforcement Office or DOCARE takes the lead in investigating violations, depending on the general circumstances, he explained. For example, in the Kauai case, the federal agency took the lead because the couple who admitted to touching the seal had already left the state.
“Going forward, DOCARE officers have been tasked with investigating wildlife harassment cases and referring them to county prosecutors for prosecution,” Redulla said Friday. Hawaii County Attorney Kelden Waltjen did not respond to a request for comment on Friday afternoon.
Under state law, monk seal harassment is a Class C felony that results in one to five years behind bars, he later explained at the press conference. The state environmental court can also impose a fine of up to $ 50,000.
“It’s pretty substantial,” Redulla added.
Kurtz said that under federal law they are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and / or the Endangered Species Act.
“These laws are put in place to protect and conserve populations for generations to come,” he later explained at the press conference. “Hawaiian monk seals in particular are critically endangered; only about 1,400 individuals remain in the population.
He urged people to view marine wildlife from a safe distance, providing the following guidance from NOAA:
• 10 feet for sea turtles
• 50 feet for Hawaiian monk seals
• 50 meters (150 feet) for dolphins and small whales
• 100 meters (300 feet or a football field) for humpback whales
With DOCARE agents responsible for over 700 miles of shoreline – in addition to millions of acres of state land – Redulla urged the public to download the DLNRTip app and help resolve any harassment incident by providing details, videos and / or photos. Tips can also be called through the DOCARE hotline at (808) 643-DLNR or the NOAA Marine Wildlife hotline at (888) 256-9840.
“We cannot be everywhere at all times and therefore we rely on witnesses who report when people are too close or harass our wildlife,” he said.
But never try to deal with the harassment yourself, said Redulla after noting that he understood that people can get emotional if they come across someone stalking wild animals like the monk seal, which has cultural significance. . Instead, report and document the incident.
“I absolutely don’t think it’s a good idea for people to step in when these things are happening, just because you don’t know who you’re dealing with. Really, the good thing is to be a good witness, to report it to the relevant authorities so that we can take the necessary measures, ”he said. “We have the tools to be safe, the training to be safe. “
According to NOAA, approximately 1,400 monk seals inhabit the main and northwestern islands of Hawaii. About 300 of these seals navigate the waters and return to the beaches of the main Hawaiian Islands, including a dozen on the Big Island. No puppy was born this year.
Sophie Whoriskey, a Hawaiian monk seal conservation veterinarian at the Marine Mammal Center, told West Hawaii Today on Thursday that the Kailua-Kona-based nonprofit was receiving reports of interactions with local monk seals, but nothing like it on Kauai’s social networks.
Reports from Big Island range from people trying to get close to mammals for photos or even accidentally stumbling across a resting seal. Some reports suggest the beaches are too crowded for animals to land for critical rest after foraging in the ocean.
“We haven’t seen anything like it on our island yet, but we are getting more and more calls about people pushing against the monk seals or not giving them enough space,” he said. she declared. … “There are many reports that monk seals have to return to the water when they would otherwise try to get out and rest.”
The center says the public can play an important role in conserving endangered species by keeping some marine wildlife viewing tips in mind when visiting local beaches and wildlife sanctuaries while keeping a safe distance from them. seals, using the zoom feature on cameras and report sightings.
A good “rule of thumb” for knowing if you are too close to a monk seal is to raise your thumb straight out in front of you, perpendicular to the animal.
“If he covers all the seal, then you’re good. But if you don’t, you’re too close, ”said Whoriskey.
To report a sighting, call or text the Marine Mammal Center Response Team on the Island of Hawaii at its 24-hour hotline at (808) 987-0765. To report wildlife harassment, download the DLNRTip app on your smartphone, call the DLNR at (808) 643-DLNR or the NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline at (888) 256-9840.