On Sunday, April 11, 1999, Hawaii lost another 10 residents to
the mainland due to the "high cost of living". The usual gathering of friends
and well wishers were there to see them off. Some had tears in their eyes, along with the
somber look of having to bid farewell to yet some more casualties of life here in
Hawaii. The departees were not relatives of mine. I didnt even know their
names or have a chance to know them. Yet I, too, was compelled to see them off and bid
Arriving at the airline terminal at 5:00 AM, I expected to already see them in their
crates ready to be loaded into the cargo bins of the airplane. However, because they had
not yet arrived at the airport, I had a chance to prepare myself and observe the action.
Still, when they did arrive, I was not quite prepared for the emotion of the scene. By now
you are probably wondering who these travelers were and why they would be in crates.
You see, the 10 residents, bound for San Antonio, Texas, were blind monk seals being
shipped to Sea World for "long term care and overall husbandry". They were going
to Texas because "they are too expensive to keep in Hawaii. It is now costing
the Federal Government over $250,000 a year to keep them in captivity".
As usual, the questions what, when, where, why and how came up:
What happened? In April, 1998, EnviroWatch, Inc. began following rumors that the
National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) was housing 12 blind monk seals at Sea Life Park
that they didnt want the public to know about because it was an embarrassment to the
Agency. After being collected from French Frigate Shoals, in poor health and nearly
starved to death, they were taken to Sea Life Park for rehabilitation where they only got
When and where did they go blind? Dr. G. "Bud" Antonelis, PhD, the
Chief Protected Species Investigator for the NMFS told EnviroWatch that in 1989 NMFS
partnered with Sea Life Park, Hawaii, in a collaborative effort to rehabilitate
undersized monk seal pups with a low probability of survival. After rehabilitation they
would be released into the wild to support population growth.
In May and June, 1995, 12 female monk seal pups, 5-6 months old, were collected from
French Frigate Shoals, temporarily stored at Tern Island, then brought to Sea Life Park.
The seals developed an eye condition and became blind approximately 15 months later.
Subsequently they were transferred to the NMFS Kewalo Research Facility where two died.
According to NMFS, "the cause of death was related to a bacterial infection unrelated
to the eye condition."
Why are the monk seals blind? The cause of the blindness has not been determined
and has not been detected in other marine mammal species.
The 12 monk seals taken from French Frigate Shoals represent approximately one percent
of the total remaining population.
In l ate September, 1998, EnviroWatch. learned that the monk seals were being retained
at NOAAs lab at Kewalo Basin. We also learned that they were going to be shipped to
San Antonio, Texas. By contacting KGMB News and getting them involved, we were able to
bring this matter to the publics attention. Then we learned that large numbers of
other monk seal pups were dying. In one case 50 or more pups died or disappeared from
Why are they dying? In a letter dated November 30, 1994, Mr. John R. Twiss, Jr. of
the Marine Mammal Commission, advised Mr. Rolland A. Schmitten, Assistant Administrator
for Fisheries, NMFS, that "the Marine Mammal Commission is gravely concerned about
continuing declines in the Hawaiian Monk Seal population. Now numbering about 1,200
animals, it has declined 20% over the last five years and about 35% since 1985."
"The monk seal colony at French Frigate Shoals, the species largest breeding
colony, has declined by approximately 45% in the last five years, apparently due to
reduced prey availability."
"Although the relative importance of prey species in the monk seal diet is
uncertain, lobsters, which are harvested commercially at French Frigate Shoals, may be an
important prey for young animals not experienced in catching more mobile species."
How can this be happening? Since 1994 at least ten letters were written by the
Marine Mammal Commission to the NMFS relating to the recommendation to close lobster
fishing around French Frigate Shoals:
NMFS replied as follows:
Oct 5, 1995 - "I do not believe that we have the necessary information at this
time to take the management measure that you have recommended..."
Apr 30, 1996 - "... regulatory action, such as a closure of the French Frigate
Shoals fishing area may be considered based on information contained in the Biological
Sept 5, 1997 - "... the fishery would not occur at a level that was detrimental to
the monk seals".
Apr 1, 1998 - "In time, a better understanding of the relationship between monk
seals and their food sources will be available."
Aug 24, 1998 - "Additional time is necessary to adequately address your
recommendation to prohibit lobster fishing at French Frigate Shoals..."
Blind leading the Blind
After years of bureaucratic stalling it appears that NMFS and the Western Pacific
Regional Fishery Management Council (WPRFMC) are turning a blind eye to the welfare of the
monk seals. In a March 9, 1999, letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it appears
Kitty Simonds, Executive Director of WPRFMC, made an attempt to shirk any responsibility
her agency holds in the management of the monk seals by shifting the burden to the US Fish
and Wildlife Service. In the letter she states: "Apparently there is great
concern over the poor survival of seal juveniles over the past decade, many of which
appear to be emaciated. This would suggest problems with forage availability, and the MMC
feels that this is exacerbated by commercial harvests of lobsters".
Simond went on to state that there has been "little to no fishing activity at
French Frigate Shoals over the past decade so the problem is unlikely to be the fault of
However, after expressing concern that animal populations at FFS are being exposed to
toxins, based on incidental observation of albatross behavior, she states that
"papers on marine mammals such as seals and dolphins show that aquatic mammals become
more vulnerable to viral infection when exposed to toxins such as DDT and
PCBs." She then requests information in order to "advise fishermen that
there may be risks associated with harvested lobsters at FFS, as well as the attendant
problems with protected species".
EnviroWatch wrote Simonds requesting information on the actions her agency has taken to
advise the public of the possibility that lobster taken from French Frigate Shoals are a
danger to public health due to their contamination with the insecticide DDT and the family
of Polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs. She did not comment.
The MMC has also advised the WPRFMC that commercial fishing in monk seal habitat may
also increase the risk of ciguatera poisoning to the seals. They stated that non-target
species, such as Kahala, known to bio-accumulate ciguatoxins, are routinely discarded by
bottom fishermen. Observers aboard the bottom fishing vessels have documented this.
With Simonds at the helm, the WPRFMC is finding itself in a number of questionable
relationships and conflicts. Financial disclosure statements filed by Mr. James Cook,
Chairman of WPRFMC, and other documents received from NMFS, indicate that Cook owns nine
limited entry permits for long lining and lobsters. Most recently he opposed the ban on
shark finning, a practice his vessels actively participate in.
During testimony at a House Committee hearing for HB1706 on shark finning, Edwin Cross,
a shark fisherman who arrived here in late 1998, told the committee that he had been given
permission by Kitty Simonds and members of WPRFMC to fish in Hawaii's waters using
longline gear. EnviroWatch followed up on Cross claims and found that Cross had in
fact contacted Mr. James Cook and discussed the possibilities of shark fishing in Hawaii.
We recovered an Application for Experimental Fishing Permit submitted to the WPRFMC by Mr.
Edwin Cross. In the application Cross stated "to fish with bottom long line in the
northwest Hawaiian Islands specifically to catch, identify and quantify shark in that
area. To be conducted at the request and direction of the Western Pacific Regional
Council. Sharks will be the target species".
Though Cross stated he was invited and encouraged by the WPRFMC to do so, he
wasnt allowed to fish in waters under federal jurisdiction. He was only allowed to
fish in state waters and, indeed, that is exactly what he did. In the application Cross
also stated "in 47 days fishing the main Hawaiian Islands, the following is the total
bycatch: 12 Ulua, half of which were alive and released, 0 birds, 0 mammals and 0 turtles.
Incidental bottom fish which are recovered alive will be returned". To make a long
story short, the WPRFMC doesnt issue permits, so why were they in the loop?
According to Dr. Charles Karnella, Area Director, National Marine Fisheries Service - the
agency that does issues permits - they only received the application after EnviroWatch
About now you are probably figuring it cant get much worse. Unfortunately it
does. The U.S. Coast Guard told EnviroWatch that in early March of this year the longline
fishing vessel, NORTHERN VENTURE, was cited for fishing in a closed area due north of
Honolulu. This vessel is registered to Vessel Management, in which James Cook, per his
annual Financial Interest Disclosure Statement owns a 50% interest.
At this rate I expect that I will be showing up at the airport to bid farewell to other
residents who were once commercial and recreational fishermen but who, like the monk seal,
cant afford to live here anymore. The fishermen are unable to make a living because
WPRFMC and NMFS are pulling the wool over their eyes.
The good news, the monk seals have a new home where they can be observed and taken
care. The bad news, lobster fishing is not the only commercial fishing activity that is
managed by the WPRFMC.
rainbow to say good bye