Saving the Seals

May 2010. I was not in favor of recent legislation to raise penalties for killing monk seals here in Hawaii, mainly because I did not and still doubt that will truly address that problem, or non problem as the case may be.  It didn’t seem to be proportional – the incidence of this particular offense is very small, far more rare than murder of other human beings, for example, and arguably, a crime of ignorance more than anything else.  Also the original bill proposal had money for educating tourists – tourists!  The last person convicted of this crime is nearly 80 years old, destitute, and will likely die in disgrace after a life of -what?  I did learn some things however in following this issue that I didn’t know.  Information provided by the Save our Seals organization indicated that the Hawaiian Monk Seal population has a population of 150 individuals.  I don’t know how accurate this number is – that would indicate to me that the species is about to become extinct!  Is this really true.  I don’t know and I am about to find out.

Assuming that the information is accurate, I do feel the effort  has had the effect of raising awareness, and that the work is important.  Humans are the baddest of badasses on the planet,  and wherever we have gone, extinctions of species have followed.

I reflect that monk seals were completely absent from my awareness as a child on the Big island fifty years ago, and at that time, turtles too were fair game, and never came ashore.   (could be too that the Big Island was never a habitat of monk seals?)  Bet that as it may, the first time I saw one in the wild was at  Ma’ili Point Oahu maybe 20 or more years ago.  It was lying on the beach, and completely oblivious to my presence.  I wonder now that these animals come ashore at all, if  a new generation, perhaps for the first time in century’s, has lost  lost its fear of man (if they indeed there was  a fear to begin with).  In my time as a child  in North Kohala in the 1950’s, no large oceanic creature was safe near shore.  I grew up in a culture where the hunting and fishing mentality was truly aggressive.  Somewhere in my time as a very young child,  there was a peculiar community spectacle called a shark hunt.  The carcass of some deceased farm animal would be floated out into the waters along with blood and guts and what have you to attract sharks.  The men would wait on the rock cliffs with rifles and ropes  and when sharks came in the slaughter would commence.  A man might dive into the water, Tarzan style, knife gripped between his teeth towing a rope to tie up a dead shark. They woud haul the largest victim onto the rocks for the crowd to marvel, gasp and poke at.  At the time, there may have been  latent reservations in some people  about whether this was right – pono but if so, I did not heard it.

Environmental awareness on any spoken level in the general culture was still a decade or so  in the future.  That old man who killed a seal with a rifle on Kaua’i comes out of a Hawaii I knew as a child.

I would say we have come a long way in this generation,  but the axiom that wherever there is man, there are extinctions, still holds.

There  appears to be a  population crash in the monk seal population.  Although the Save our Seals newsletter  I received blame the human presence for this (and ultimately that would be true) , man may not be the entire problem now.   This year is an El Nino year for example which is a planetary scale oceanic temperature anomaly.  This doesn’t happen overnight, these take months or years to develop,  recur at decadal (or shorter) time scales.   El Nino’s have been around for much longer than man has had significant climate altering technology which I’d estimate to have begun with the large scale burning of coal (reversing millenia of carbon storage in the ground).   I should think that natural factors have profound impact on  oceanic food chains.  I seem to recall reading about low birth rates of seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the last couple of years.   I’m not a scientist and I don’t  pay close enough attention to these things to  this anything more than  speculation,  but in the case of the monk seal populations I would not be surprised if there were several factors at work, which may or may not be working independently of each other.  Without man, there is little doubt in my mind the monk seals would be thriving still, but it is far too late for that.  It is now us up to man to do the right thing.

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