Hooking More Than Just Fish. Hawaiian Monk Seals At Risk.

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Hooking More Than Just Fish. Hawaiian Monk Seals At Risk.

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Feb 18, 2013

I’m thinking about the phrase, “Hana Pa’a.” It has many meanings for me.

The literal translation to English is, “to make secure or fasten.” In Hawaii, it’s a phrase you might hear cried from the mouths of fishermen. “Hana Pa’a,” they will holler when a fish strikes, and their line screams from its reel. You might even see “Hana Pa’a” painted on the stern of a boat, and you can rest assured it’s a boat used for fishing. The colloquial translation is, “Hook up,” and that makes me think of today.

Even though this won’t publish after, I am writing these words on Valentine’s Day, a notorious day for hook ups.

When I think of hooks, I think of the demi-god Maui and the magic hook that he used to pull up the Hawaiian Islands from the depths of the ocean. You’ll find a replica of that hook for sale throughout Hawaii—made of plastic and sold at ABC stores and made of cow and more exotic bone and sold by local craftsmen at fairs and markets and galleries, including Front Street in downtown Lahaina by Pioneer Inn.

Fish hooks. In the case of Maui, a fish hook was used to find land. For most, though, fish hooks are used for sport and sustenance. That is, as the name implies, fish hooks are used to catch fish. But sometimes, fish hooks catch more than fish.

Last week, as I canvassed a Laysan albatross colony--and to my glee, identified a high number of successful chick hatchings--my phone rang. My current ring tone is “She’s a Rainbow,” a little-known song by the well-known band, The Rolling Stones. It makes me happy.

I don’t usually answer my phone when I am in nature, preferring the connection with Mother Earth to that with humans. But it was Mimi. She heads up our efforts in conservation for Hawaiian monk seals on Kauai.

“Are you on island?” she asked. She knows I travel around the Hawaiian archipelago and cannot always respond to her requests. As it turned out, I was not only on Kauai, but I was above the very beach a male Hawaiian monk seal needed help. I knew this monk seal, flipper-tagged T12, and born three years ago to a regular, productive mother, known as Rocky. The juvenile seal had recently molted, and sported a beautifully, clean coat of silvery-grey and milky-white stomach.

But the bad news was another volunteer reported a length of fishing line trailing out of T12’s mouth and a fish hook embedded in his front flipper. What’s worse, this was T12’s second hooking in two weeks.

With a special permit—because T12 and his kin are protected by the Federal government under the Endangered Species Act—a team of us herded T12 to a safe place on the beach where Mimi and her cohort Jamie could carefully peer down T12’s throat—while keeping their fingers out of his mouth. We hoped they’d see the terminus of the fishing line and could extract that hook then and there.

If monk seals were typical, we’d say they forage for food far off-shore at depths of 300-500 feet, where they flip over rocks with their thick-muscled necks and fill their bellies with lobster, eel and octopus. But not all monk seals are typical. Who is? And they’re known as opportunistic. That is, if they’re returning from a big feed in the deep, blue ocean and find a fish wiggling on a line, swishing in front of their face, as tempting to you and me as a juicy ripe mango dangling from a tree, they’ll open their powerful jaws and snag it. Who wouldn’t?

Sadly, though, as the population of Hawaiian monk seals increases in the main Hawaiian Islands, more seals are getting hooked.

Just the week before, this very same seal, T12, turned up on the same beach with a large, ulua fish hook in his tongue. Elsewhere, on Hawaii (Big) Island, another hooked seal was discovered and flown to Oahu for surgery and a different result. Whereas T12’s ordeal ended with the successful removal of his hook, K68 died as a result of his injuries, a fish hook ingested weeks, perhaps months earlier.

In 2011, a total of nine monk seal hookings were reported, none of which resulted in deaths. Last year, 15 hookings were reported, resulting in three deaths.

And here was T12 again with a hook in his fore-flipper and fishing line flowing from deep within his throat. There would be no removing this hook on the beach. He would need to be sedated and anesthetized. A marine mammal vet would have to fly over from Oahu. Another team would mobilize to assist. And T12 would once again, for the second week in a row, be de-hooked and released to roam the seas again.

The Hawaiian word for monk seal is ’ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua, or “dog that runs in rough waters.” But this wet dog must think he’s a cat. And he’s used up two of his nine lives.

The vast majority of endangered Hawaiian monk seals ply the waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the marine sanctuary known as Papahanaumokuakea, but a growing percentage, perhaps 15%, live in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Strangely, survival rate of Hawaiian monk seals is greater here, where there is a greater possibility of interaction with humans—and fishing hooks and gill nets and boat propellers. Whereas only one in five pups survive to adulthood in the sanctuary, four out of five thrive in the waters from Kauai to Hawaii (Big) Island.

Is this rash of hookings an indication of things to come or an anomaly? We’ll see. In the mean time, I’ll be toting my binoculars with me on beach outings, and you might want to pack yours, as well. There are a few things you can do to help the long-term survival of Hawaiian monk seals—and reverse the decline of some 3% each year to a population numbering just 1,100.

1.    Do not disturb monk seals on the beach or in the water. Give them space. If they’re on the beach, they need their beauty rest just like you and me. Do not chase, approach, surround, feed, swim with, throw rocks at, or attempt to touch a monk seal or any wildlife, for that matter.

2.    Do not attempt to push seals back into the water. When they are on the beach, they are not stranded. They are there to sleep.

3.    Be extra careful around mothers and their young.

4.    Keep your voices down.

5.    If you have a pet with you, please keep them on a leash and give each animal wide berth of each other to prevent injury to ensure the cross-species transmission of disease does not occur.

6.    Help prevent marine debris—dispose of rubbish carefully. Reduce, reuse, recycle. And pick up after others. It’s good karma;-)

7.    Finally, if you have binoculars or using a long telephoto lens, conduct a health assessment of the monk seal, paying particular attention to its mouth area. If you see fishing line coming out of its mouth or plastic rings around its neck or anything but seal bits, call 808-651-7668.

8.    And, always, report any sightings of monk seals by calling 808-651-7668. This is very important.


Mary | Feb 19, 2013 09:59 AM

What a beautiful creature. Thanks to you and the team for the dedicated work. And a big thanks for sharing the list of what to do, and what not to do when having the fortunate experience of seeing a monk seal.

Julie | Dec 03, 2013 03:19 AM

Hi Kim! My last day on Kauai in Feb. was taking photos of T12 getting his first hook removed. I flew out that night. Great last day getting to see him belly hustle back to his home in the ocean! Was amazed when I heard the little bugger had done it again! Will be back in a couple of weeks to pick up where I left off… I hear the seals calling, and also my fellow south shore volunteers who can use a bit of a break. Happy to venture north, too! Great article! Hope to see you soon! Julie H

Kim | Dec 03, 2013 09:47 AM

Hi Julie, thank you for your dedicated volunteerism while on vacation over the years. Thankfully, since we de-hooked T12 for the second time earlier this year, he has pretty much stayed out of trouble;-)

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