Why care about monk seals?

Posted by Lauren Muneoka at Aug 04, 2011 01:55 AM |
This month, we asked Kehaulani Watson, president of Honua Consulting and leader of the Na Mea Hulu project this, and a few other questions about our native ʻīliokai.

Thanks to the continued advocacy of KAHEA, the Center for Biological Diversity, and a wide hui of ocean lovers around the planet, the proposal for expanding critical habitat protections for the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal is out for public comment.

The rule is pretty broad, and though there are some important gaps, it would establish large areas of critical habitat for monk seals throughout Ka Pae ‘Āina. Critical habitat protection means the U.S. government cannot do things on these beaches -- like build a Federal highway -- that would impair the quality of these resources for monk seal survival.

Why care about monk seals? This month, we asked Kehaulani Watson, president of Honua Consulting and leader of the Na Mea Hulu project this, and a few other questions about our native ʻīliokai.

KAHEA: Are monk seals important? Are monk seals "native"? What function do you see them playing in the eco-cultural system (ecosystem/culture/society) of Hawai'i?

Kehaulani: Monk seals serve an important role in the marine ecosystem, as do most species in these complex webs. Like manō and ulua, monk seals are apex predators and serve to control levels of numerous prey populations to maintain a healthy functioning ecosystem.

There have been a lot of questions as to whether or not the monk seals are “native”. The simple answer is yes. Several million years ago, monk seals ventured out from the Pacific coast of central America and navigated their way to the remote Hawaiian Islands. They colonized the islands, spread across the pae`āina and lived underdisturbed for millions of years. As the pae`āina grew, monk seals were likely one of the first animals to sleep on the shores and feed on the resources around the islands.

It is likely that many people have questions as to the native status of the monk seal, because monk seals were not as commonly seen in the main Hawaiian Islands in the last century as they are today. There are references to the monk seal in our traditional resources, albeit they are rare. There is currently research being done about presence of monk seals in traditional literature and oral histories. We hope that will provide more information on the role monk seals played in traditional Hawaiian culture.

KAHEA: Hawai`i is currently named by some as "the extinction capitol of the planet" due to the high rate of post-contact loss of species. What do you think it means (for you personally, for Hawai`i as a place, and for Hawaiian society) when a species in Hawai'i goes extinct?

Kehaulani: As a Hawaiian, I think the loss of a species has multiple meanings. One on hand, death and loss were a natural part of the Hawaiian culture – death was part of the cycle of life. Yet, on the other hand, as a Hawaiian in the 21st century, I think the Hawaiian people need to consider the fact that the loss of species in Hawai`i is occurring unnaturally these days. The losses we witness today are not a natural part of the cycle of life, rather the result of natural environments that have become gravely unbalanced due to human intervention.

We must remember that environmental resource management is part of our sacred duty as Hawaiians. It is a kuleana we are born into – it is a great and beautiful gift from our kūpuna. The role of the Hawaiian is one of environmental kinship – to care for Papahānaumoku, our Earth Mother. Therefore, I believe that when a species becomes endangered or threatened, it means we are failing in our kuleana to keep these resources in balance.

KAHEA: Why are there so few monk seals today?

Kehaulani: No one really has any idea how large the monk seal population may have been at its pre-exploitation peak, but there were probably many thousand across the entire pae`āina. Based on our current knowledge of seal movement and ecology the main Hawaiian Islands probably had a large number of seals. Monk seals would have been an easy source of food for early island discoverers and settlers and were likely eliminated in the MHI.

The Papahānaumokuākea population of seals probably remained largely undisturbed by humans for a long time until western contact. In the last 200 or so years, monk seals and the larger environment have suffered a variety of impacts in Papahānaumokuākea. Historical records show sealing ships in the late 1800’s collecting thousands of seal skins and barrels of seal oil, which may have been why Native Hawaiians also referred to them as “mea hulu” (furry things) and valued them for their fur. Individual islands’ seal populations were completely wiped out. Over time these populations increased and recolonized all of Papahānaumokuākea but still faced impacts from fisheries, military activities, and more.

Currently, despite the numerous protections of Papahānaumokuākea, monk seals are in a decline. The primary cause of this decline is terrible juvenile survival. Less than 1 in 5 seals born in Papahānaumokuākea will survive to adulthood. With few females becoming mothers there are fewer pups, creating a dramatic downward spiral in the population. The sources of mortality are numerous and include entanglement, shark predation, disease and others. But the primary cause appears to be young seals not being able to get enough food. Emaciated seals are a regular site on the beaches in Papahānaumokuākea. It should be noted that all of these threats impact all monk seals in Papahānaumokuākea, it just that juveniles, a valuable and vulnerable portion of the population, are hit the hardest.

A bright spot in the monk seal’s plight is the recent return to the MHI where a small but moderately growing population of seals exists.

KAHEA: Is the survival of monk seals important? If yes, why?

Kehaulani: Yes, if we cherish a healthy and balanced ecosystem. Hawaiian monk seals are endemic to Hawai`i and the only seal found in its waters. The Hawaiian monk seal is one of two remaining species of ancient seals, the other is the Mediterranean monk seal and both are critically endangered. A third member of this group, the Caribbean monk seal, went extinct in the 1950’s. Monk seals have been part of Hawai`i’s fragile marine ecosystem for millions of years, they, like all animals of the sea, are children of Kanaloa. We have a kuleana to keep this system healthy and in balance. Their loss, added to the past and ongoing disappearances of so many species, will leave a Hawaiian ecosystem that is broken and diminished for future generations. We cannot allow this to happen.

Kehaunani Watson bio pic for eNews.

Trisha Kehaulani Watson, JD, PhD, earned her degrees from Washington State University and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. A lifelong Mānoa resident, she works as a community advocate and private consultant. She is President of her own consulting company, Honua Consulting (www.honuaconsulting.com). She particularly enjoys working with Hawaiian nonprofit organizations and other cultural organizations. She specializes in environmental issues, historic preservation, fundraising/grant-writing, evaluation, research, and policy matters. She is active within the Native Hawaiian community; she is a member of `Ahahui Ka`ahumanu, Daughters of Hawai`i, the Native Hawaiian Bar Association, and other Hawaiian organizations. She is a board member with the Hawaiian Civic Club of Honolulu and the Native Hawaiian representative to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (HIHWNMS) Sanctuary Advisory Council. She can be reached at watson@honuaconsulting.com.

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