The Garden Island - - Morning Briefing -

Pub­lic Li­brary Wed­nes­day night that the body lan­guage the seals are dis­play­ing can be likened to good-na­tured ban­ter­ing.

Recorded on a tiny cam­era strapped to a monk seal’s back­side, this is the sort of raw, unedited footage that is help­ing to bridge the gap be­tween what is cul­tur­ally and his­tor­i­cally known about the im­per­iled monk seal and what sci­en­tists are just now learn­ing.

At a pre­sen­ta­tion and talk story event hosted by the Friends of the North Shore Li­brary at Princeville, Lit­tnan ex­plained how the an­i­mal, which is na­tive to Hawaii and whose num­bers as slightly re­bound­ing, has had trou­ble find­ing its foot­ing in the con­scious­ness of the com­mu­nity.

The monk seal is not memo­ri­al­ized widely, if at all, in tra­di­tional Hawai­ian chants, songs or hula. Nearly hunted to ex­tinc­tion in the 1800s, the an­i­mal was for hun­dreds of years rarely seen by hu­mans.

That all be­gan to change in the 1980s when the species, which is mainly con­fined to the un­in­hab­ited North­west­ern Hawai­ian Is­lands, grad­u­ally started re­col­o­niz­ing the main is­lands. It started with Ni­ihau. Then came Kauai, which now counts a res­i­dent pop­u­la­tion of about 50 an­i­mals.

Slowly, the seal has be­gun to fold it­self back into the fabric of the lo­cal aquatic com­mu­nity. Yet while many Hawaii res­i­dents adore the sweet­faced an­i­mal, oth­ers ques­tion its va­lid­ity as a na­tive species.

“One of the points of con­tention is whether or not they are na­tive,” Lit­tnan says. “You have peo­ple who live here, 85-year-old fish­er­men, who have never seen a monk seal in their lives. Then one day they see this gi­ant, fat slug of an an­i­mal that’s sleep­ing there that’s pretty mas­sive. And you know it’s blub­ber. To get that big you know they have to be eat­ing a lot.”

As such, it has been a strug­gle to rein­te­grate the an­i­mal back into so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially the fish­ing com­mu­nity Lit­tnan says.

Among the mis­con­cep­tions Lit­tnan says he and other sci­en­tists have worked to dis­pel is the no­tion that monk seals root around in the coral reef like pigs of the sea, de­stroy­ing the ecosys­tem and eat­ing ev­ery­thing in sight. Those who sub­scribe to this no­tion, Lit­tnan says, tend to har­bor neg­a­tive feelings to­ward the seal. Of­ten, they view the an­i­mal as com­pe­ti­tion for the same fish that so many lo­cal peo­ple catch to feed their fam­i­lies.

This is where the use­ful­ness of the crit­ter cam footage comes into play. By hand­ing over raw video of monk seals as they go about their day, re­searchers have been able to show res­i­dents that the seals are not sig­nif­i­cant com­peti­tors for the lo­cal fish sup­ply, nor are they de­stroy­ing the reef. Rather, they are cu­ri­ous, ram­bunc­tious an­i­mals who spend two-thirds of their lives at sea, sleep­ing and hunt­ing for oc­to­pus or other bot­tom-feed­ers that hide in small pukas in the reef.

As for their ap­petite, monk seals eat about one pound of fish per square mile of sea, Lit­tnan says.

Fol­low­ing hun­dreds of years of de­cline, the species over the last three years has re­ported a small uptick in num­bers. As sci­en­tists work to coax a re­bound of the monk seal pop­u­la­tion, ed­u­ca­tional out­reach is cru­cial to fos­ter­ing a cul­ture of co­ex­is­tence be­tween hu­mans and the seals, Lit­tnan says.

All told, 1,400 monk seals live in the wild across the lee­ward and main is­lands. Yet whereas 25 years ago a seal sight­ing in the main is­lands was in­cred­i­bly scarce, there are now about 300 of the whiskered an­i­mals liv­ing from Ni­ihau to Ka Lae, or South Point, on the Big Is­land.

“We’re not re­ally suc­cess­ful un­less a seal makes it to the point where they are now hav­ing their own pups,” says Lit­tnan, who says at least 28 per­cent of the seals that are alive to­day ben­e­fited from life-sav­ing sci­en­tific in­ter­ven­tions dat­ing as far back as the 1980s. “This is all about get­ting this species to the next gen­er­a­tion, who will then take it to the next gen­er­a­tion and the next gen­er­a­tion. In or­der to do that, we have to know how to co­ex­ist with both seals and peo­ple, and it’s go­ing to be about com­pro­mise.”

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