Marine Corps Base Hawaii --
As of 2017, the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) population remained stable with ~1400 seals estimated across their natural range. Their numbers have been slowly increasing after their near extinction in the early 1900s due to over-hunting for their fur and meat. Protective regulations were set in place to encourage the recovery of their population. The Hawaiian monk seal is listed as an “endangered” species under the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) of 1973 and designated a "depleted" species under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. The State of Hawai‘i lists the Hawaiian monk seal as “endangered” under the state’s endangered species law.
The MMPA prohibits hunting, harassing, killing, capturing, injuring and disturbing marine mammals; the law prohibits the feeding of any marine mammal in the wild. The penalty for feeding a seal may be as much as $6,000 depending on the circumstances. The ESA prohibits anyone from harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing, or collecting a threatened or endangered species, or attempting to engage in any such conduct. The “take” of a listed species may result in large civil fines and/or criminal charges and is considered a third-degree (Class C) felony.
In 2018, NOAA demonstrated how seriously they take these violations by tracking down an Alabama man through social media. He had posted videos of him harassing both an endangered monk seal and a protected sea turtle while visiting Kauai the previous year. He was fined $1,500.00 after posting the videos on Instagram. Members of the public who witness harassment of protected marine animals (such as monk seals, sea turtles, whales and dolphins) can report it to NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement at 800-853-1964, email RespectWildlife@noaa.gov. If this occurs on MCBH, contact the base federal conservation law enforcement officers.
While tiger shark predation, particularly of young pups, contributes significantly to the small number of Hawaiian monk seals, the biggest threat is from humans. Seals are at risk from entanglement in marine debris, overfishing, competition, invasive species, habitat loss, disease, ocean acidification, and sometimes intentional killing.
Within the past few years, we are seeing greater numbers of seals haul out onto the beaches of MCBH. As the number of Hawaiian monk seals increases, so will the number of interactions between beachgoers and this protected species. Monk seals are known to haul up on to beaches to rest or sleep. They also use their beach time to give birth, nurse, or molt. Because monk seals are primarily marine mammals, they have difficulty moving efficiently on land, and become more susceptible to disturbances by people and their pets.
Beachgoers with pets are a potential threat to Hawaiian monk seals in a number of ways. Per Base Order (BO) P5233.2, dogs and cats must be under the physical control of their owners at all times (indoors, fenced area, or leashed). According to a recent study from Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) and Department of Health (DOH), cats (both feral and domesticated) are directly responsible for decreasing the Hawaiian monk seal population by spreading the disease called Toxoplasmosis via the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. To date, toxoplasmosis has been confirmed as the cause of death for six Hawaiian monk seals and a dolphin. This dangerous parasite is transferable through feces, is known to be fatal for marine mammals, and can cause serious symptoms in humans with weak immune systems. Cats are the only known reproductive host of Toxoplasma gondii, and State officials claim a single cat can excrete 145 billion parasitic eggs through its feces per year.
Seals do carry diseases as well, such as distemper, which are communicable to dogs and transferable to humans. There have been documented cases of a dog biting seals and seals biting dogs, exposing both animals to a variety of foreign bacteria, viruses, and parasites. While a seal may look peaceful sleeping on a beach, when a wild animal (especially one that can reach 7 feet long and over 400 pounds) feels threatened, they quickly become a potential threat to people and their pets.
So, what do you do if you find a Hawaiian monk seal on the beach?
1. Keep Your Distance! Whether or not you have a pet with you on the beach, ensure that everyone keeps a distance of 100 feet from the seal. In the ocean, monk seals may exhibit inquisitive behavior; approaching or attempting to play or swim with a seal is harmful and could be dangerous to the swimmer. Cautiously move away from the seal and exit the water.
2. Call the NOAA hotline (National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration) at (808) 220-7802 or report it to the nearest lifeguard! A phone call to the Hotline alerts the NOAA response coordinator. Then, depending on the location, behavior, and condition of the seal (health status, markings, age, etc.), a seal volunteer may set up a ‘seal protection zone’ (SPZ) around the seal using a rope, cones or signs. MCBH lifeguards can also establish an SPZ. Please abide by these warning signs as the SPZ is meant to prevent disturbance of the seal and enhances public safety.
3. Cautiously move away if you observe the following monk seal behaviors:
· Female attempting to shield a pup with her body or by her movements
· Vocalization (growling, barking)
· Rapid movement
· Sudden awakening
MCBH Environmental Division’s role is to educate the public on how to reduce the impacts of human disturbance and coexist with Hawaiian monk seals on our beaches. If you have any questions on monk seal sightings, protocol, or natural history, please feel free to contact Base Environmental at 257-7000 or 257-7129.