The US is seeking someone to broker peace between humans and seals

Hawaiian monk seals have been protected since 1976.
Hawaiian monk seals have been protected since 1976.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Baker
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People have intentionally killed at least eight endangered Hawaiian monk seals on the Hawaiian island of Molokai over the past decade. So far, federal authorities have been unable to broker a peace between humans and seals in what can seem an intractable conflict over natural resources.

If eight seals doesn’t seem like that many, there are only about 1,100 left in the world, and the population is declining fast. To solve the problem, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is seeking a mediator to facilitate a resolution to the conflict.

“While PRD (NOAA’s Protected Resources Division) has spent years interacting with community members, and does have an understanding of the social, cultural, and economic factors that have made the monk seal a target of anger and frustration, engagement and outreach efforts have met with varying degrees of success and have not stopped the killings,” a capabilities request issued late last month by the agency says.

Conflict between humans and wildlife is a growing problem in the US, and the world. In California, protected brown pelicans have been shot, electrocuted, and had their wings broken and beaks sawn off by local fishermen who see the birds as a “nuisance.” The Devil’s Hole pupfish, a protected species found only in a single Nevada cave, has engendered intense animosity among some local farmers and ranchers who bristle at the idea that the tiny animals seem to enjoy more rights than the people who live there. “I hate elephants,” a farmer in Botswana recently told a reporter. “Two simple reasons: They have widowed me, and they have left me without a harvest.”

Man vs. Wild

Hawaiian monk seals are protected under Hawaiian state law, the federal Endangered Species Act, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They were declared endangered in 1976 and have since “been met by many islanders with a convoluted mix of resentment and spite,” wrote journalist Jon Mooallem in 2013, whose work often explores interspecies conflict. They have been shot and beaten by fishermen who claim the seals steal their catch. Others have been stabbed in the head with spears. This violence, on top of the environmental factors that have already reduced the Hawaiian monk seal’s habitat, only serves to further hasten the species’ decline.

Hawaiian monk seals eat fish, and like many marine mammals, “Sometimes they can be opportunistic and hang around fishing boats,” said Steve Jones of the San Francisco-based Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit that seeks to protect endangered species through legal action. “Among certain fishing communities in Hawaii there is a fear that the monk seal protections come at their expense.”

But while they may be “competing a bit” with people for fish, the restrictions around Hawaiian monk seals don’t limit a person’s catch, Jones told Quartz. “So the perception that these protections are somehow advantageous to them over local fishermen isn’t true.”

Nor do existing habitat protections affect swimming, surfing, or other traditional activities, Jones explained.

“We fight Big Oil up in Alaska, and we totally understand why a lot of Native tribes are supportive of the oil industry,” he said. “Some communities in Hawaii feel like a lot of people today: They’re under economic stress, it’s a competitive world, and they feel like, ‘Why is the federal government coming in to help these Hawaiian monk seals and not us?’”

There is also the issue of mainlanders coming in and telling native Hawaiians how to run their affairs. As Mooallem explained in 2013, Hawaiian “ocean users” have been disillusioned with Washington’s intervention since at least 2006, when then-president George W. Bush declared 140,000 square miles of Pacific Ocean a national monument and off-limits to fishing. Some locals see it as an “aquatic land grab” by the federal government, according to Mooallem.

“That skepticism is compounded for native Hawaiians,” he wrote. “After all, they now walk beaches that their families have used for centuries and find tracts of sand literally roped off by NOAA monk-seal responders—men and women who, on Kauai, are almost exclusively white, wealthy retirees from the mainland…Even the idea that a wild animal needs such coddling strikes some locals as absurd. ‘The seal needs to rest!’ one man, Kekane Pa, told me sarcastically. ‘The seal needs to rest because it’s been swimming in the water.’”

Not either/or, but both

It is a critical juncture for the Hawaiian monk seal. Most endangered marine mammals under federal protection have begun to recover, Jones said. Just two species have not—southern resident killer whales, and Hawaiian monk seals. The efforts to save the Hawaiian monk seal is not an issue of the mainland usurping Hawaiian sovereignty, Jones insisted. He says his and other nonprofits have been conscious of addressing islanders’ concerns.

If NOAA does push ahead with its apparently much needed conflict resolution initiative on Molokai, it envisions it as a three-step process:

First, the winning bidder will “conduct an assessment of the human-monk seal conflict on Molokai (including community-government relations) and identify the challenges and barriers to achieving the goal of human-seal coexistence.”

Next, they will hold a “conflict transformation and capacity building session to relevant parties to cultivate an understanding of the root causes of the killings and the dynamics between the community and the government agencies tasked with conservation of monk seals.”

And finally, the contractor will “develop a roadmap of steps to take to move forward towards a status of peaceful human-seal coexistence.”

Jones sees Washington’s attempt to understand and mitigate the concerns of local communities, when it comes to the intersection of conservation and socioeconomic issues, as generally good. Sensitivity is key, he says, but no one should lose sight of the fact that almost half of the planet’s species are now being lost to habitat degradation and climate change.

“We need to take this problem really seriously and put resources into protecting species as well as into working with communities that might be affected by those conservation efforts,” Jones said, adding that this is not an either/or equation. “I think the federal government should do more to help people, and at the same time, also…help endangered species.”