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Monk seal pup’s foray by Waikiki canoe club prompts concerns

HONOLULU — When an endangered Hawaiian monk seal pup was born at Kaimana Beach in May, officials had a set of established protocols in place.

It was the fifth time, after all, that a pup had been born at the popular beach in Waikiki and was no longer an unprecedented situation as it was back in 2017. Rocky has given birth to two pups at the beach, and Kaiwi has now given birth to three pups at the beach.

Officials quickly set up a wide perimeter, netting off most of Kaimana Beach, with signs warning it was a Hawaiian monk seal mom and pup nursing area, and that mother seals can be aggressive and bite.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR), and city lifeguards would work together to ensure Kaiwi and pup were undisturbed during the five- to seven-week nursing period.

DLNR said Division of Conservation and Resources officers would once again provide a round-the-clock watch once the pup became more active, and that they would issue citations for violations.

The messages were repeated: give the mom-and-pup pair a recommended 150 feet of distance both on land and in water; do not approach or attempt to play or swim with the monk seals; and know that mother seals can be very protective and have seriously injured swimmers in the past.

This larger perimeter was set up after a 60-year-old woman from California suffered lacerations in an encounter with Rocky and pup while swimming at Kaimana two years ago.

“By staying behind the perimeter and choosing to swim at a different beach, you can stay safe while also playing a big part in helping recover this endangered species,” said Kilali Gibson, NOAA’s O‘ahu Marine Wildlife Response Coordinator, in a statement.

Plenty of beachgoers, however, did not appear to choose another beach and still swam, surfed and paddled at Kaimana over the past six weeks.

According to monk seal advocates, there were numerous instances in which beachgoers got much too close to Kaiwi and her pup, Pa‘aki, both on the sand and in the water, particularly along the shoreline next door at the Outrigger Canoe Club.

Too close

Melina Clark said in just the past week there were many instances of this, captured in photos and video submitted to DLNR.

Kaiwi and her pup migrated beyond the rock jetty over to the ocean by the club, she said, and rested on shore near steps leading to the beach.

Clark said surfers walked casually past the seals without maintaining any distance. In another instance, she saw a little girl throwing sand from above the steps at the seals resting below.

She said her heart skipped a beat when she saw kids swimming in the ocean with Kaiwi and pup nearby, while their moms chatted away on shore, seemingly oblivious to the dangers. After trying to get their attention, advocates called DLNR and an officer went to talk to them.

There were also members clustering on a ledge above the seals, she said, taking photos of them napping below, which might seem benign but is also a form of disturbance.

Clark said she tried to reach out to club management but was unable to, and that a security guard informed her nonmembers were not allowed on property nor to bother club members with education or outreach on the endangered seals.

She said, previously, volunteers have provided outreach at the club when seals were present, but were not allowed to this year.

Tyler Roukema, general manager of the Outrigger Canoe Club, however, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in an email this was not the case and that it welcomes volunteers from designated organizations.

“The Outrigger Canoe Club is committed to the protection and preservation of the Hawaiian Monk Seal,” said Roukema in an email. “Having been home to several recent births of new seal pups, the beach in front of the Club continues to be a place where the Hawaii Monk Seals feel safe to return to year after year.”

The club works closely with DLNR to follow all applicable laws, and provide a safe space for the seals and public, he said.

“The Club proactively communicates with our members to reinforce the importance of respecting wildlife and adhering to the recommended guidelines,” he wrote, whether in person, through signage or email alerts. “We remain committed to ongoing collaboration with the DLNR and other relevant authorities.”

Additionally, he said, “The Outrigger Canoe Club educates and reminds members of the potential dangers of being too close to the monk seals and we emphasize the importance of maintaining a safe distance from them to avoid disturbing them, particularly mothers and pups. Our staff and volunteers regularly monitor the public beach where the seals are and provide beachgoers with guidance to ensure both human and animal safety.”

DLNR said no citations have been issued at this time as no clear “take” violations, or harm or harassment, have been observed under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act. Although DOCARE can initiate an investigation, violations of the act are handled by NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement.

DOCARE officers, however, can issue a citation for obstruction of a government operation, and are still monitoring the area.

Safety

NOAA said the distances are recommended for safety, but are not legally enforceable boundaries.

“When viewing monk seals and other marine wildlife, your actions should not cause a change in animals’ behavior,” NOAA said. “Generally speaking, you’re too close if a seal reacts by starting to stare, fidget, or flee into the water. Even if you don’t see these reactions, it’s always a good practice to give monk seals as much space as possible so that you don’t negatively impact them or put yourself in a harmful situation.”

NOAA on Wednesday said the pup has weaned — and is a female pup, which is hopeful news for the recovery of the seal species.

Officials plan to relocate Pa‘aki, as they have done with other pups born at Kaimana, to a more remote shoreline on Oahu. This location will not be disclosed for the pup’s safety.

According to NOAA, a mother monk seal will not leave her pup to forage for food throughout the nursing period, which lasts from five to seven weeks. She stays with her pup until she uses up her energy reserves —then abruptly weans the pup.

“Habituation is one of our most concerning issues with leaving Pa‘aki in a year-round busy environment like Kaimana Beach,” said NOAA. “A young seal that receives positive interactions from people — such as attention, play, or being fed — will continue to seek out humans for these interactions. Once the seal grows and matures, that behavior can be a human safety risk.”

NOAA said moving the pup away from Kaimana Beach will allow Pa‘aki to grow up wild rather than in the crowds of beachgoers in Waikiki.

NOAA MARINE VIEWING GUIDELINES

>> Recommended safe viewing distances: 50 feet from a resting monk seal; 150 feet from a mother monk seal and pup on land or in water. Respect their space.

>> Stay behind any signs or barriers

>> Keep dogs on a leash.

>> If you see someone closely interacting with marine wildlife — such as touching or chasing it — report the incident with videos and photos to NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement at 800-853-1964, respectwildlife@noaa.gov or via the DLNRTip app.

Source: NOAA
Source: The Garden Island

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