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Monk seals are in a struggle for survival. Though they are becoming more common on the main Hawaiian Islands, their numbers are dwindling on the Northwest Hawaiian Islands where they historically thrived.

Some people resent the seals for hampering their fishing, or for taking their beach space. To some the seals are a symbol of a government that protects native animals more than native people. Recently, Hawaiian Monk Seals are being killed by people. If you’re concerned about this situation, here are some things that you should know…

Who is writing this?
My name is Patrick Ching, and I am from Hawaii. Born in Honolulu in 1962 and raised in the valleys of Pauoa and Moanalua, I was always fascinated by animals. During a Family Court sponsored Outward Bound expedition on the Big Island when I was sixteen, I decided to become a professional artist and teach people about nature through my art. I am also a fisherman and I love to eat and share the fish I catch.

Some of the timeline information within was compiled by Trisha Kehaulani Watson.

The first time I saw a Hawaiian Monk Seal was on the pages of a Time Life book. In those days seals were so rarely seen around the main Hawaiian islands that they were only reported here about once a year and usually in the ocean. I hoped and prayed that one day I would see a monk seal in real life. I thought, “If I ever got to see a monk seal in person it would be like seeing a mermaid.”

In 1981 I began my trips to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a volunteer to study the rare animals that lived there. On my first day I walked out onto the boat ramp on Tern Island and up from the water popped a bald-headed monk seal. Those big, dark eyes stared at me like so many times that I had seen in my mind. That was the day that I met my mermaid.

Since then I have spent my life painting Hawaiian animals and teaching the public about Hawaii's natural heritage. I also became a ranger for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and worked at the Kilauea Lighthouse on Kauai as well as in the dense rain forests of all islands and the northwest Hawaiian Chain. I wrote the book The Hawaiian Monk Seal published by University of Hawaii Press.

I'm writing this article because I am concerned about untrue rumors that are being spread concerning monk seals, and I would like to say what I know and have experienced.

The rumors I hear are that the Hawaiian Monk seals are not actually Hawaiian, that they were brought here by the US Government, or even that they were brought here from the now extinct Caribbean population that was last sighted in 1952.

My response to the statement that Monk seals are not from Hawaii is that these seals evolved in Hawaii long before any humans were here. There are records of the seals in Hawaii from ships logs and photographs dating back to the 1800s, over a century before Hawaii became a state. The ships of those days would have no reason, or even the ability to bring seals here from halfway around the world.

I've been told “I never seen monk seals here before, my father never seen them, my grandfather never even heard of them!”

I understand this statement. The same was true for me, my father, and grandfather.

That is because for generations the seals inhabited the remote islands and atolls which lay to the northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. In the 1980s a trend began to occur. The seals began to haul out on beaches of the main islands starting with Ni`ihau and then Kaua'i. According to Keith Robinson, of the Robinson family that has the deed to Ni’ihau, monk seals were virtually nonexistent there until 1970. Since then the seals have increased in numbers there and by 1991 Robinson estimated that there were about “fifty fat, healthy seals using the island.” By the mid 1990s the island of Kauai was home to about half a dozen seals.

There is some mystery as to why the seals are shifting to inhabit more of the main islands. For some reason the population which used to thrive on the northwest Hawaiian Islands are now becoming scarce there. Many of them are skinny while the seals that are coming to the main Hawaiian Islands are robust and healthy.

In the daytime monk seals seem lethargic on land. They are more actively feeding at night. Seals are smart and nimble in the water. They may take the bait off a fisherman’s line and also take the fish from a lay net that is set in the water. If you were a fisherman who feeds your family with your catch, you would understand what a nuisance a monk seal can be.

Add the fact that people are required to give the seals 150 feet of distance and someone may start to feel pushed out of a place that they previously had free reign.

I suspect that when the first people came to Hawaii, monk seals inhabited the beaches of all the Hawaiian Islands, big and small. I think that seals would have been a natural source of food and were eaten as the opportunity presented itself as were flightless birds and seabirds. Monk seal bones were found in the mitten of an archeological sight estimated to be from 1400-1750AD.

The seals could thrive mostly undisturbed on the remote atolls in the Hawaiian chain because these tiny islands were rarely visited by people in ancient times.

In recorded history there are many accounts of people using these islands and in 1824 a hunting expedition of the ship Aiona was thought to have killed the last of the monk seals. In 1859, however, the ship Gambia returned to Honolulu from the Northwest Hawaiian Islands with 1,500 seal skins and 240 barrels of seal oil. After that guano miners and feather collectors continued to kill seals, adding to the decimation of the seal population.

A remnant population of seals survived and in 1909 President Theodore Roosevelt, appalled by the pillaging, established the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

In 1973 the Marine Mammals act was established to protect endangered marine animals.

From then on the seals were relatively protected and began to feel safe around humans. I personally am happy that seals and people are living together. I understand the frustration of my family and friends who make their livelihood fishing.

They also feel that the government “brought the seals” to the main Hawaiian Islands. There is an understandable reason for that feeling too. While the natural shift in the seal population was happening, a small amount of seals were relocated to the main islands from the remote atolls. In an attempt to remove certain rough males (that were killing female seals) from the northwest Hawaiian Islands population, the Fish and Wildlife service and National Marine Fisheries Service transported some males to isolate them on remote atolls such as Johnston Island and also places on the main Hawaiian Islands. This gave further fuel to the claim that the government brought the seals here.

All that said and understood. What I have to say is that we treat the seals with the care that an endangered species deserves. Even if they do infringe upon some of the space we see as “ours.” We need to learn to share the planet. The monk seal population is currently estimated at 1100 animals. With numbers this low a species can so quickly lose momentum and disappear into oblivion.

I ask my friends and family out there who have resentment toward the seals to not blame them, or anybody, but to instead be thankful that this wonderful Hawaiian animal is still here to share the planet with.

With respect and aloha,
Patrick Ching

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