Friday, June 17, 2011

Hawaiian Monk Seal: proposed protections need public support

When considering marine mammals, whales and dolphins are what come to mind for many. And that's understandable as these animals have been the subject of many conservation battles, from ongoing anti-whaling campaigns to inhumane treatment (as in my post on Wednesday of this week) to the tragedy of the Taji harvest as shown in the documentary, The Cove.

However, also included in the marine mammals group are seals and sea lions and while, perhaps, less severely threatened as whales and dolphins, they are not completely out of the woods. Once extensively hunted for their fur, hide, blubber (for making seal oil) and meat, the populations of many seals and sea lions declined rapidly. But large scale seal hunting has declined, much like whaling in the past, and the number of seals and sea lions have improved despite continued hunting by several countries - personified largely by the harp seal hunts that take place in Canada and Northern Europe and Scandinavia, although it does still take place worldwide.

Being based in Southern California as I am, I have had the opportunity to come in contact in the wild with California sea lions, harbor seals and, occasionally, northern elephant seals. Typically curious and playful, I have had them nipping on my dive fins for fun, sneaking up on my game bag (in my early days of diving when I would go for the occasional lobster or abalone), or I have been repeatedly dive bombed underwater, as many other local divers have experienced, either as playful exercise or as a means of shooing us away if we appeared to be a threat.

Unfortunately, even where hunting is not taking place or is even prohibited, seals and sea lions are still set upon with challenges: caught in fishing nets, tangled up and choked by plastic garbage, poisoned by pollution or naturally occurring substances like domoic acid from algal blooms, and even shot by the occasional fisherman who felt the animal was affecting his potential catch. Add to that, changes in their natural habitat from climate change, and we find seals and sea lions - animals that are important members of the ocean community and add to its natural balance - are in a perilous position not much different than whales and dolphins.

One species of seal I have not had the pleasure yet of seeing in the wild is the Hawaiian monk seal, unfortunately one of the most endangered of all marine mammals. Once heavily hunted, their numbers were reduced to a level that has had them continually at that tipping point of total population collapse. Designated as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, the number of Hawaiian monk seals continues to slowly decline to just a little over one thousand in number. Further reductions would certainly put it on a slippery slope towards extinction.

Several conservation organizations have taken the U.S. government to task to ensure that all is being done to give these ocean mammals a fighting chance. Kahea - The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance and the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) are petitioning concerned citizens to be the voice of the Hawaiian monk seal in demanding the Obama administration to adhere to the Endangered Species Act and grant the seal protected habitat not only on the northwestern islands where it is currently protected but on the main islands as well. Just this month, such a proposal was made, expanding the seal’s habitat to 11,000 square miles, including beaches and coastal waters on all the main Hawaiian Islands and increasing its protected habitat in the Northwestern Islands.

But it is not yet a done deal and so both Kahea and CBD continue to exert legal and public pressure (there's even a Facebook page dedicated to saving the Hawaiian monk seal) through public petitions and filings in the courts to make sure that the National Marine Fisheries Service makes good on the expanded habitat proposal. There is still a chance that one of Hawaii's unique species can be saved from extinction.

Learn about Kahea - The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance.
Learn more about
The Center for Biological Diversity and its Hawaiian monk seal campaign.

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