The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in cooperation with the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), is investigating the suspicious death of a critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal on the north-east coast of Kauai. The death is the most recent in a long string of seal murders fuelled by the misbelief that monk seals are responsible for a decline in local fishermen's catches.  

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The seal was found dead from blunt force trauma at a beach in Anahola. Image: Jamie Thomton NOAA Permit #932-1905/used with permission

The young female seal (identified by DNLR as 'RF58', a seal the group had been monitoring since her birth earlier this year) was found dead from blunt force trauma at a beach in Anahola on November 30th. "She was seen perfectly healthy and behaving normally when observed near her birthplace less than 24 hours before she was found dead," reports local news station KiTV. According to the preliminary post-mortem report from the Ke Kai Ola Marine Mammal Center and NOAA Fisheries, the seal likely did not die immediately, but from complications associated with massive trauma and internal bleeding.

Killing a monk seal in Hawaii is a felony that can land perpetrators a $50,000 fine and up to five years in prison ... but the threat of jail time doesn't seem to be enough to keep the crime from happening – and it's all to do with the seals' narrow escape from extinction.

When the Polynesians first landed in Hawaii (about 1,500 years ago) they quickly decimated the seal population – slaughtering them for meat and oil. Luckily, some monk seals took refuge near the Leeward Islands (a remote archipelago north-west of the main island chain) and have begun to bounce back in recent years, much to the excitement of conservationists. "The problem is that now we have these seals living flipper to foot with humans," says NOAA Hawaiian monk seal researcher Charles Littnan, who worked on exposing the misconceptions about monk seal fish consumption back in 2013.

"We've heard on the extreme end that monk seals eat 600 pounds of fish a day," he says. "People are understandably concerned about their livelihoods ... but the biggest monk seal you'll ever see is about 600 pounds. Very few animals eat their bodyweight in food a day – it's a physical impossibility [for the seals]." Despite extensive efforts by Litten, and others like him, local lore paints monk seals as the marine equivalent of locusts, hungry invaders sweeping their way across the ocean.

These animals are endemic to Hawaii (found nowhere else in the world), something that NOAA and DLNR staff urge locals to consider. 

"They are from here and they belong here," says DLNR chairperson William Aila, adding that killing a healthy female monk seal in the wild is senseless and will only make things worse for the local ocean ecosystem and the people who depend on it. "The loss of this female is particularly disturbing because every female lost is a huge blow to the recovery of this species," he says.  

Officials have offered a $5,000 reward to anyone who comes forward with information that leads to the apprehension of the perpetrator and urge anyone with clues to call the NOAA OLE hotline.

Top header image: Kanaka Menehune/Flickr