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Thursday, June 22, 2000

Star-Bulletin file photo
A monk seal watches over her baby last year
on Kauai; unfortunately, the female pup was
found dead in the surf two months later.

Sealed for the season

Concern for the
monk seal's survival leads
to a lobster-fishing ban

By Lori Tighe



NO lobster will be harvested from Hawaiian waters this year, the federal government has decided in an effort to help revive the dwindling lobster population.

Environmentalists are hailing the ban on Hawaiian lobster fishing as a victory for the endangered Hawaiian monk seal.

If not for a recent decision by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), fishing for lobster in Hawaiian waters would have begun July 1.

Lobster is a nutritional food for monk seals, the most endangered marine mammals that live solely in U.S. waters.

NMFS decided to ban lobster fishing in Hawaii for the rest of 2000 earlier this month. The agency move came just a few days before a judge was to rule on a preliminary injunction requesting the same thing.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
A monk seal at the Waikiki Aquarium.

U.S. District Court Judge Samuel King said in his June 5 ruling that the issue was now moot, since NMFS voluntarily has banned lobster fishing in Hawaii this year. A coalition of environmental groups represented by Earth Justice had sought the injunction forcing the ban.

Earth Justice attorney Paul Achitoff will continue to represent Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network in an ongoing lawsuit that seeks longer-term protection for the monk seals.

What's good news for the monk seals, however, is bad news for Hawaiian lobster lovers.

The news of this season's ban on Hawaiian lobsters surprised some local chefs.

"Wow, no! I hadn't heard that," said Sam Choy's Diamond Head Restaurant executive chef, Elmer Guzman. "We'll be very disappointed in not having Hawaiian lobsters. It's day and night difference between them and the imported lobsters. It has a sweet flavor to it. It's so good."

The Hawaiian lobster market is highly regulated and accounts for just a nibble of the $50 million seafood market. Most of the lobster, about 80 percent of the $1.2 million market, stays in Hawaii. During local lobster season, it accounts for a sizable share of the state's total lobster market -- supplemented with imports from around the world, said Stu Simmons, president of Seafood Connection, the state's largest lobster distributor.

Quotas were easily filled

Most licensed fishermen collect their permitted quota in just a month or two after the July 1 season opening, due to tightly controlled limits.

"Unfortunately it will have an impact on the consumer and the fishermen who will fish it," Simmons said. "People won't be able to enjoy a local product. It's an outstanding lobster preferred by locals and tourists alike."

About a half-dozen fishing boats and their crews of about 45 workers will be affected, said Sean Martin, one of the eight permit-holding lobster fishermen.

"We have mortgages on houses and boats. This will have a significant financial impact on all of us," Martin said.

He probably will do more longline fishing, which normally accounts for 70 percent of his annual income. But that industry also is entangled in environmental legal battles involving leatherback turtles.

"To point the finger at the fisherman as the demise of the monk seal is premature. They die from sharks, from mobbing -- where the males kill the females -- and 30 monk seals died in captivity during scientific research over the years," Martin said. "Yet everyone's pointing fingers at the fishermen."

But monk seals need the lobster more than people right now, said Bill Gilmartin, former leader of the NMFS Monk Seal Recovery Program for 16 years.

A community of seals

The monk seal population is like a small town, where everyone is known by their first name. Scientists have identified almost all of the 1,300 to 1,400 monk seals that remain in the Hawaiian Islands, their only habitat in the world. They are thought to be the oldest seal in existence, with ancestors dating back 15 million years.

Beach counts of monk seals, historically a sign of abundance, have declined by 60 percent since the late 1950s, and 4 to 5 percent annually from 1985 to 1993, according to NMFS.

The seals have stabilized from 1993 to 1998, but NMFS worries they may nose dive in the near future because of a high juvenile death rate and low reproductive rate at the French Frigate Shoals.

"Our team has recommended the lobster fishery be closed. We are pleased that seems to be happening -- with prodding," said Gilmartin, who is currently chair of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Team, a volunteer advisory group to NMFS, and also research director for the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. "We know monk seals eat lobster and the fishery is depleted."

Judge King said Earth Justice probably would have won a court injunction if NMFS hadn't voluntarily closed lobster fishing for the year. "The data strongly suggest that the fishery contributes to the starvation of the monk seals," he wrote in his 30-page decision. He also warned NMFS that if the agency changes its mind and allows lobster fishing, it must notify the court.

Nearly everyone agrees number of lobster in Hawaiian waters is being worrisomely depleted. NMFS has closed lobster fishing before due to concern, in 1991 and 1993. The agency reopened the lobster fishing in 1994 with an initial quota of 200,000 lobsters. But after the first month of fishing, NMFS realized the quota should have been 20,000 lobsters. The season was aborted after 130,000 had been caught. The Hawaiian lobster population continued to dwindle 20 to 30 percent between 1998 and 1999.

Since the habitat of the lobster and the monk seal overlap, indicators show the monk seals feel the effect of lobster shortages and are starving at some sites, Gilmartin said.

"They're starving at the French Frigate Shoals. They waste away and die," he said.

Almost all of the pups born in the 1990s at the French Frigate Shoals, at one time the largest colony of monk seals, have died, he said.

Environmentalists believe the food-deprived females who do survive reproduce later than normal -- at around 10 to 12 years old, instead of age 6.

Diet needs more research

The advisory team recommended NMFS halt lobster fishing for three years to assess how many lobsters remain and how much lobster the monk seals need. The Marine Mammal Commission, another government agency, also advised NMFS close lobster fishing and do more research.

"All in all, the monk seals are in a precarious state," Gilmartin said. "I don't think anybody can predict what's going to happen when the older monk seals die and there are no pups replacing them."

But the monk seals' dependence on lobster hasn't been confirmed and more research is needed, said NMFS lead monk seal biologist Bud Antonelis.

"They have one of the most diverse diets in the ocean," Antonelis said. "Our biggest challenge is to figure out how important lobsters are to them."

Other factors in deaths

Several factors are killing the monk seals, including sharks, entanglement in marine debris, and male mobbing, an aggressive behavior of male seals who gang up on females to mate with them, killing them in the process.

"Each one of these seals are valuable. We can't afford to lose a single one," said Antonelis, who handles a seal with extreme care and only with a veterinarian present. Even scientists have been accused of contributing to their demise by their hands-on research.

"There is room for cautious optimism," he said, hopeful for their recovery. Mitigating efforts are paying off and the seals have had a record number of pups in the past two years.

Scientists suspect about 15 Galapagos sharks are feeding off monk seal pups in the French Frigate Shoals. They have killed one of the sharks to date, and plan to kill more.

They've also split up aggressive male seals known for mobbing, and moved them to other areas.

A rehabilitation and release program has helped return about 50 pups who had been abandoned back to the wild, older and healthier.

Antonelis said the research must continue. "We have an obligation to recover the species and protect it as one of our national treasures, not just for the U.S., but for Hawaii."

Up close:
Hawaiian Monk Seal

Bullet Name: The seal gets its name from its solitary behavior, like a monk, and also because the rolls of its neck make it look like it's wearing a monk's hood.

Bullet Population: 1,300 to 1,400 remain. They are the most endangered marine mammals that live solely in U.S. waters.

Bullet Size: Adults weigh between 400 and 600 lbs, and are about 6 to 7 feet tall. Newborns weigh between 20 and 30 lbs.

Bullet Color: Silver just after they molt, and light tan before molting.

Bullet Life span: 25 to 30 years.

Bullet Offspring: Pups are born in April and May. A mother gives birth to about one pup a year and nurses it for five to six weeks.

Bullet Daily diet: Lobster, fish, octopus and squid.

Bullet Predators: Tiger shark and Galapagos shark.

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