As if you needed another reason to be angry about the world in 2021, there’s been a spate of seal killings in Hawaii. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed this week that a young female monk seal found dead on the island of Molokai in September was shot in the head. The tragedy marks at least the third time this year that a monk seal has been killed by humans on the island, and the seventh time over the past 10 years.
“These intentional killings of this endangered species is devastating to the recovery of this population,” the agency said in a statement.
The seal whose death NOAA was investigating was a young female known as L11. Her body was found by a dentist walking her dogs earlier this year. Todd Yamashita, an operations manager for the nonprofit Hawaii Marine Animal Response on Molokai told the Honolulu Civil Beat in October that he’d been monitoring L11 since her birth; when he heard she died, he said, he cried.
“I knew she was going to get into trouble,” Yamashita said. “She was too friendly, too curious.”
I am not one to normally support vigilantism, and wish wildlife officers success in solving this case. But should the need arise, my fists are at the ready to dole out justice for L11. NOAA said that some of the other monk seal deaths it has recorded this year where it couldn’t conclude the cause of death may also have been intentional; these “are considered open cases for law enforcement,” the agency noted. All in all, 10 seals have died this year, including two newborns—a rate that’s concerning to officials.
There are only about 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals left in the wild, making them “one of the most endangered seal species in the world,” according to NOAA. They are the only tropical seal species left on the planet. The seal population is split between around 300 on the main islands and another 1,100 clustered on the smaller, unpopulated northwestern part of the island chain. The seals have faced two waves of danger: Once in the 19th century, when hunters first arrived on the island, and the ecological damage of the 20th and 21st centuries wrought by human changes to their habitat. Fishing nets and parasites currently post the biggest threats to the endangered seals. But tourists are also an issue, including one man who paid federal fines this year after posting a TikTok of his friend slapping a seal. This person is lucky the legal hammer has been dropped on them rather than my fists of fury.
So, too, are the intentional killings are also a huge concern, officials at NOAA said. There is a mistaken perception among some living on the islands that the seals are not a native species and that they interfere with fish populations.
“‘It is your God-given right to annihilate anything that comes in the way between you and your fish that feeds your family’ — that is a sentiment that runs deep, especially when you cross it with misinformation,” Yamashita told the Civil Beat. “If you’re being told, ‘This seal is the government’s lapdog and it was introduced by them into your backyard to take the fish away from you,’ and ‘the seal has more rights than you do’ — when you’re being fed all of this misinformation, something bad is going to happen. That’s how most seals have been killed over here.”
A species’ value isn’t determined by how cute it is. The rate at which humans have destroyed ecosystems and species—and the rate at which climate change is now posing an irreversible threat to even more—is an immeasurable tragedy. The creepiest of crawly insects can serve invaluable roles in their ecosystems, and those guys should be protected as well. But it is really something else to think about shooting a cuddly, sweet, endangered seal, especially ones that have made such a public and beloved comeback.
The law agrees. Killing an endangered seal is a felony, and those found guilty can be sentenced to up to five years in prison. If you’ve got information on any of these seal murders, the NOAA hotline is (800) 853-1964. My DMs are also open. Either way, these seals shouldn’t have to defend themselves.