Getting Monk Seals Off The Hook

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - May 20, 2009
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An old debate recently resurfaced when a man-made tool clashed with Mother Nature.

Veteran photographer D.B. Dunlap first met Kermit the Hawaiian monk seal eight years ago.

“His old fur had built up a lot of algae over the years so he appeared very, very green,” recalls Dunlap, a volunteer monk seal tracker. “Being a longtime Muppets guy, Kermit was a no-brainer, so it’s been Kermit ever since.”

Through the years, Dunlap has seen Kermit surface at Nimitz Beach and White Plains in Kalaeloa, and as far east as Sandy Beach and Rabbit Island. Several weeks ago, on April 22, volunteers spotted him with a three-inch ulua hook stuck in his mouth. Despite several attempts to remove it, the hook stayed there for 11 days.

“We tried catching him at Sandy Beach, Makai Pier and one time at Nimitz, and each time he was in the water, which made it very difficult,” says David Schofield, marine mammal response coordinator with NOAA Fisheries. “It seemed like he didn’t know we were trying to help him.”

Schofield, Dunlap and other volunteers finally got to him on day 11 when he and another seal nicknamed Irma arrived at Nimitz Beach.

“We used a big net that looks like a big butterfly net and put that over the animal, and once that net was over we immobilized him on the beach,” says Schofield. “We rolled him in position, cut through the net and then used bolt cutters to cut away the hook.”

Kermit swam off and hauled up at Waikiki Beach several days later still swollen but alive. Schofield says this is the fifth similar incident in 2009, and fears they’ll surpass the nine “de-hookings” done in 2008. He says each one triggers debate over the use of barbed hooks.

“We’re trying to encourage fishermen to use a bar-bless circle hook, which is basically the barb being crimped down or sanded off,” says Schofield. “What that does is it prevents another contact inside the mouth and allows us to easily remove the hook if we have to.”

Schofield says in some cases seals can free themselves if the barb is not there. Fishermen say barbless circle hooks are not efficient.

“I no like sound insensitive, but those hooks don’t work,” says “Barry,” a veteran ulua fisherman who asked to not give his last name. “Most of us are responsible, but sometimes these incidents happen. I know I won’t use them.”

Schofield says data proves otherwise and hopes fishermen can keep an open mind.

“Studies have shown it doesn’t greatly reduce your take or your ability to catch fish,” says Schofield. “There’s no difference between the barbed and the barbless, except this one is better for the seals.”

According to Schofield, there are only 100 monk seals in Hawaiian waters with the total population estimated at 1,100. He says the animal’s population is decreasing at 4 percent every year.

“Survival of each individual is still very important to the recovery of the population,” says Schofield. “It’s not just the federal and state agencies, but it’s people in the community including the media that’s going to help in recover the monk seal.”

“We’re doing our part, too, but I don’t think government agencies should tell us how to fish,” says Barry. “I know every monk seal counts, but for the amount of fishermen out here compared to the number of incidents, it does-n’t justify any change.”

Schofield says if fishermen want free barbless circle hooks, they can call the National Marine Fisheries Services at 983-5326. “All we’re asking is people to try it because it’s going to take all of us.”

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