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Feds defer plan to move Hawaii seals to main isles

Feds defer plan to move Hawaii seals to main isles

HONOLULU (AP) — Federal officials on Friday said they’re temporarily giving up a plan to boost survival rates for juvenile Hawaiian monk seals by moving a few of them from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to the main Hawaiian Islands each year.

The National Marine Fisheries Service proposed the idea two years ago to help save a critically endangered species that’s declining at an annual rate of 4 percent.

But the more work needs to be done before the agency will be ready to bring the seals to islands where there are a lot more people, officials said.

Charles Littnan, the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s lead scientist, said the agency must build its network of volunteers who call in to report when seals are stealing fish from fishermen, hanging out around boats or displaying other behavior inappropriate for a wild animal.

The agency steps in to teach seals not to do these things, but authorities are currently only hearing about this kind of behavior after seals have been acting this way for a while. By then, it’s very difficult and time-consuming to get the seals to stop, Littnan said.

Officials also need to do more to spread the word about appropriate ways for people to interact with seals. For example, people need to know they should never feed seals because this encourages the seals to beg for food and become a nuisance.

“It’s just like feeding your dog at the kitchen table. You only have to do it once and they’ll keep begging,” Littnan said.

The agency will launch a campaign to raise awareness about never feeding seals and reporting troubling behavior.

It also wants to be able to train people on different islands to respond quickly to a report of a seal exhibiting troubling behavior or that’s gotten caught in a fish hook. Currently most of the people trained to respond are on Oahu and it’s difficult to send quickly people to the scene.

In 2011, the fisheries service proposed bringing a few recently weaned female pups to the main Hawaiian Islands each year. The plan was to keep them here until they were three years old and then send them back to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which are a string of remote, mostly uninhabited atolls.

It wanted to do this because only one in five pups born in the northwest lives to adulthood. In contrast, their cousins born in the main Hawaiian Islands have a greater than 80 percent chance of surviving.

Jeff Walters, the agency’s Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator, said the translocation plan is still part of long-term plans to save the species.

“It’s just a matter of putting it in our application when we’re closer to being ready to implement it,” he said.

Tightening budgets isn’t the reason for the delay, Littnan and Walters said. If they were ready to move the seals, the program budget could be reprioritized to make it happen, Littnan said.

The news came as the agency on Friday submitted an application for a permit that will allow the monk seal program to research and help the seals over the next five years. Comments on the application are being accepted through April 15.


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