The Hawaiian Monk Seal: How it became the most endangered pinniped in the Pacific

Wespac, the federal fishery council that helps govern American fisheries in the North Pacific Ocean, apparently feels it is under no obligation to tell the truth. At least, not in January 2005, when Wespac trotted out an obscure study to make a case for lobster fishing in the proposed Northwestern Hawaiian Islands National Marine Sanctuary.

Wespac said the study is proof that lobster fishing won’t take food away from the highly endangered Hawaiian monk seal, which lives in the islands almost exclusively. The seal has suffered an steep decline and an alarming rate of starvation in recent years.

At a packed public meeting in January 2005 in Honolulu, Wespac stated that “conclusive evidence the fishery indirectly effects (sic) monk seal foraging is unfounded.” For this, it cited a 1998 study by a 1998 University of Hawai`i researcher named Gwen Goodmanlowe, who had published a paper, Diet of the Hawaiian monk seal, in the journal Marine Biology.

In a report, Wespac claimed her results showed lobster and bottomfish “do not constitute a significant component of the natural diet of Hawaiian monk seals.”

Goodmanlowe says she did not say that.

Cascadia Times interviewed Goodmanlowe, now at the California State University, Long Beach, by email. She says Wespac's interpretation of her study is wrong. The study did not say monk seals don’t eat lobster.

The way her study was designed, it was not even possible to reach any kind of conclusion about lobster in monk seal diets. The study did say blubber studies are needed “so that the occurrence of lobsters in the (monk seal) diet can be accurately identified.”

In 1999, Goodmanlowe wrote another paper that further examined monk seal nutrition. In this paper, she found that seals she examined may be lacking essential amino acids that are commonly found at relatively high levels in lobster. Seals that lack the amino acid can have problems with brain functions. She said this finding indicated that lobsters “may be more beneficial nutritionally” to monk seals than other prey.

By then, NOAA Fisheries had already hired a Canadian researcher from Nova Scotia to do the blubber studies that Goodmanlowe recommended.

The scientist, Dr. Sara Iverson, said other studies did not accurately measure lobster in monk seal diets because the animal spits out the shells or so thoroughly digests them that they are impossible to find in scat.

She said the best place to find clues to what’s in a monk seal’s diet is to analyze what’s in the blubber.

She went public with her preliminary data at least three times. At the end of 1998, Iverson presented preliminary findings to the Hawaiian monk seal recovery team showing that the seals do, in all probability, eat lobster.

“Although this is preliminary (how many times can I say that word?), lobster has definitely come through and sometimes quite largely (especially at French Frigate Shoals),” she wrote in a Nov. 13, 1999 email to NOAA Fisheries scientists.

She presented a similar oral report at a December 1999 meeting of the Hawaiian monk seal recovery team where she said lobster may represent 20 to 25 percent of the prey consumed by sub-adult seals of both sexes, and by adult females.

This was too much for Wespac to swallow. On March 6, 2000, Simonds wrote a letter to a top NOAA official complaining that Wespac’s science advisors did not see any conclusive evidence “of food limitation” in monk seals, despite compelling field reports detailing case after case of monk seal starvation.

Simonds’ letter also protested “the misrepresentation of results from fatty acid signature studies of monk seal tissue that prematurely suggest a proportionally high level of lobster in their diet.”

Since then, the public has heard little from Iverson about monk seals. She did give a declaration in the lobster lawsuit before Federal Judge Samuel King. In it, she cautioned that her results were preliminary, and not to be used to make policy decisions regarding the seal.

She declined an interview about her data, and NOAA Fisheries rejected Cascadia Times’ petition under the Freedom of Information Act to see her results.

Back to the beginning

One might think the Hawaiian monk seal enjoys a cushy lifestyle. After all, the seal gets to hang out on the beautiful reefs and sandy beaches of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. But that doesn’t mean survival is easy. The waters around its haulouts are full of dangerous predators, including the large and powerful Galapagos and tiger sharks.

Smaller monk seals also need to watch out for big male seals who on occasion beat up and kill the weaker animals.

But the most worrisome threat may be starvation, which has plagued the Hawaiian monk seal continually since 1988. That year, researchers began noticing large numbers of dead, emaciated young seals on the beaches of the main pupping grounds on French Frigate Shoals, according to field reports written at the time.

In 1990 and 1991, as the downward trend continued, NOAA scientists wrote in a report, “This population clearly is declining after 30 years of increase.” And the decline continued throughout the 1990s as the monk seal population at French Frigate Shoals declined by 55 percent.

Today, the starvation continues, and the aging population is failing to replace itself. As the older females die off, and with the population declining 5 to 6 percent a year, the species appears to be on track for a sudden and tragic collapse.

There are only 1,600 monk seals in the world, counting the 300 of the even more highly endangered cousin, the Mediterranean monk seal. A third group, the Caribbean monk seal, hasn’t been seen since 1932. On earth, no other pinniped, a group of marine mammals that includes seals and sea lions, is so close to extinction.

It may be a coincidence, but the monk seal’s decline paralleled the crash of one of its prey: the lobster. The main difference is that the lobster dropped much faster than the monk seal, at least so far.

You can’t say Wespac, which authorized the lobster rampage, wasn’t warned. As long ago as 1980, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers expressed the same concern and urged Wespac to be careful. During the 1990s, the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission wrote at least a dozen letters to NOAA and Wespac warning that lobster fishing might be taking food away from starving monk seals, and to take precautions.

In 2005, the commission found itself still fighting Wespac and its proposed lobster fishing.

In comments on that plan, it noted that lobster fishing in the northwestern islands showed “classic signs of overfishing and stock depletion.” Catch levels in 1999, when the fishery had to be closed, were just 10 percent of levels taken in the mid-1980s.

“It is uncertain to what extent the depletion of the lobster stock has contributed to the decline of the monk seal population at French Frigate Shoals or to the species' lack of recovery at other locations. This clearly reflects a case in which precautionary management requires that the fishery remain closed until unambiguous data indicate otherwise,” the commission wrote.

As always, Wespac dismissed the commission’s recommendation.

Ignoring the data

Throughout the decline of the lobster and the monk seal, Wespac demonstrated a lack of commitment to caution and conservation, a stubborn refusal to listen to outside experts, a strong reliance on old-fashioned denial and a close allegiance to the lobster fishing industry.

Wespac was not alone in its failure to protect theses species. NOAA played a major role by failing to recognize and act on danger signs. But the record also shows that some scientists at NOAA were deeply troubled by the lobster fishery and its effects on the monk seal. According to emails contained in federal court records, these officials were overruled by their superiors, perhaps testimony to Wespac's political clout.

U.S. ocean policies have also failed in the northwestern islands and with marine mammals in particular. The Marine Mammal Protection Act, a weak law approved by Congress in 1972, created the Marine Mammal Commission, a toothless but diligent federal agency whose only means of protecting the animals rests with its power to persuade other government entities to do the right thing.

Wespac has shown that the commission is easily ignored even in the most dire circumstances, like those facing the monk seal. Wespac’s neighboring fishing council, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in Alaska, has similarly dismissed the mammal commission’s pleas to slow down fishing in areas where northern fur seals and Steller sea lions are in serious decline.

A review of federal documents by Environmental Defense reveals that Wespac at numerous points in its history allowed fishers to catch amounts of lobster far in excess of quotas, easily ignoring the Marine Mammal Commission even in the most dire circumstances. The fishery was not run with an eye for ecological sustainability; Wespac instead was obsessed with the personal profits of a few individuals.

Lobster fishing couldn’t have been better during the late 1980s. With a high price for lobster tail, fishers reported hauling 2.5 million lobsters on board in 1986, worth $6 million. From 1985 to 1990, they caught more than 11 million.

Every year during the 1980s, Wespac set quotas that were exceeded by as much as 500 percent. In 1989, Wespac decided that it would be safe to catch 1 million lobsters a year. But that year, boat captains worried that the boom was going to bust. Of 16 boats, only three were clearly profitable, economists said at the time.

They were right to worry. As the chart above shows, in 1990, almost half the catch was comprised of illegal undersized lobster females with eggs, meaning the fishers, in theory, had to throw back about 50 percent of the haul.

By 1992, fishers were catching far more illegal lobsters than legal ones. That year, Jim Cook, who went on to be Wespac's Chairman, and Ed Timoney, husband of an ex-Wespac council member, was fined $40,000 and negotiated to pay a reduced fine of $29,500 for keeping illegal undersized and female lobsters with eggs. Lobster fishing was closed in 1993.

By 1994, cost and revenue analyses indicated that, on average, lobster vessels showed losses of $40,000 to $55,000 per vessel per year. In 1995, the fishery remained closed but one vessel was allowed to fish under an “experimental fishing permit” to assess stock conditions. In 1995, Wespac decided that the solution to this problem was to let allow fishers keep all the lobsters.

Everything was now legal, as far as Wespac was concerned. But under state law, retaining undersized and berried (pregnant) female lobsters was illegal.

Emails passed among senior NOAA officials at the time indicate they held strong doubts about letting fishers keep the young and the female lobsters. The impacts on monk seals was chief of their concerns.

Even the guy at the top, William Fox, the agency’s director, was worried. In November 1995, he said in an email: “As I pointed out… the potential effects on monk seals were inadequately addressed in the (Wespac) biological assessment.”

Fox was particularly concerned that lobster fishermen would engage in “high grading,” the practice of throwing away small lobsters without counting them against the quota.

Fox said “the literature (research) indicates that monk seals feed predominantly on sublegal lobsters, therefore a decline in these would be more of a problem than a decline in the overall stock,” according to an email by Sven Fougner, another NOAA Fisheries official and the first executive director of Wespac.

Fox also believed that the seals moved around to areas with healthier lobster populations. The lobster fishery wasn’t being closely watched. Wespac never required independent observers to be on board any of the boats.

“We have stated that the relationship between lobsters as prey and seals is not well understood, but that lack of understanding should not be used to state that we do not know the impact and act as if there may not be one,” said Michael Payne, a NOAA Fisheries official, in another November 1995 email. “Rather, it should prompt a conservative approach to re-opening this fishery until monk seal predatory habits and lobster are better understood. This is such an endangered species, with a trend that continues to decline, that to be anything other than very cautious is not prudent. … It is not apparent to me why this fishery should be allowed unless monitored by observers, and a buffer is established that will protect a foraging area for seals.

“I am really concerned about this. We spend an incredible amount of money each year, the seal still continues to decline, and we are considering allowing a fishery to develop and increase around one of the few haulouts that is increasing. I think we are shooting ourselves in the foot.”

NOAA Fisheries issued a biological opinion in 1996 that found a “continuing decline in pup production, and total seal counts over the past years, (which) is cause for significant concern.” The agency attributed the decline to three factors, including the lobster fishery.

And yet, in the end NOAA Fisheries let Wespac reopen its lobster fishery in 1996 with new rules and created a “retain all” fishery allowing the capture of female lobsters with eggs and undersized juveniles. practices banned in the Main Hawaiian Islands. Female lobsters can take 8 years to reach reproductive maturity and their capture is banned in waters throughout the United States. This fragile fishery may be the only place in the country where their harvest has been legal.

The lobster fishery has historically been a spiny lobster fishery. The low-value slipper lobsters were never prized by the fishing industry. In the 1980s, the spinys were more plentiful. But as the spiny population was fished down, in 1998, fishers, for the first time, caught more slippers than spinys.

On October 16, 1998, the 87-foot Paradise Queen II, a lobster and longlining vessel, was fishing for lobster at Kure Atoll when it went aground on the seaward side of the fringing reef crest, southeast of Green Island.

According to a joint state and federal government inquiry, at the time of the grounding, the vessel carried 11,000 gallons of diesel fuel and a combined volume of 500 gallons of hydraulic fluids and oil. The vessel was also carrying about 3,000 pounds of frozen lobster tails, 4,000 pounds of bait, 1,040 plastic lobster traps and 11 miles of lobster pot mainline.

The boat was not pulled off the reef because the ship's owner did not allow government responders to remove the ship immediately after it ran aground. Once the ship broke apart, removal became impossible.

Two years later, researchers found broken coral, uprooted coralline algae structures, the bodies of two monk seals among piles of nets surrounding the decaying wheel house, some 600 lobster traps and hundreds if not thousands of lead fishing weights and fishing line.

The fishery staggered along until February 2000, when NOAA Fisheries officials had finally had enough. Environmentalists had filed a lawsuit accusing the agency of violating its duties under the Endangered Species Act to protect the monk seal. Despite the apparent low abundance of spiny lobster at many banks in the northwestern islands, the commercial fishery was continuing to target spiny lobsters.

NOAA declared that any spiny lobster-directed commercial fishing effort may be excessive. Wespac responded with a letter stating that it “strongly opposes” the closure.

“The Council requests that (NOAA Fisheries) immediately withdraw its proposal and allow the fishery to operate with a harvest guideline of no more than 130,000 lobsters,” Simonds wrote in a letter.

But for once, Simonds didn’t get her way. NOAA announced the closure would take effect on July 1. And on November 15, Federal Judge Samuel King ordered NOAA to keep it closed.

Who speaks for the monk seal?

The Marine Mammal Commission began warning NOAA and Wespac of its concerns about the lobster fishery as early as 1981.

It said Wespac’s lobster fishing regulations “must include provisions for preventing adverse impacts on the Hawaiian monk seal and other endangered or threatened species, as well as provisions for preventing overfishing of the lobster stocks.”

But Wespac NOAA preferred to listen to their own experts, and they allowed the fishery to keep chugging along.

In 1991, the commission noted that in 1990 the lobster stock had been reduced to 22 percent of its pre-fishery level in the late 1970s. “We are concerned, however, that the current definition of overfishing in this Plan may be lower than it should be, given recent trends in Hawaiian monk seal population levels and ecological relationships between lobsters and seals,” the commission said.

In 1991, NOAA responded to the commission by noting that the lobster fishery, when compared with other lobster predators like sharks, and environmental stresses on the stocks, “is only a small component affecting the availability of lobster to the monk seal.”

In 1994, the commission asked NOAA to close fishing near French Frigate Shoals. “Pups born at this atoll have been smaller at weaning than pups born at other islands and have suffered very high mortality in their first year of life. Also, survivorship rates for pups and juveniles have declined substantially over the last five years,” the commission’s director, John Twist, wrote.

But Wespac was not persuaded. Neither was its Science and Statistical Advisory Committee. The committee claimed that there was “insufficient information at this time to support the concerns raised by the (Marine Mammal) Commission regarding the decline of the monk seal population at French Frigate and the lobster fishery; there should be no prohibition of lobster fishing around French Frigate.”

The letters continued to come from the commission; they made no discernible impression on NOAA or Wespac. In 1999, Simonds sent this message to the commission’s Twist:

“The basic assumption underlying your letter, as in your previous letters on this subject, continues to be that lobster fishing is adversely affecting monk seals due to competition for prey, either primary catch or bycatch. We are aware of no new information that suggests lobsters are important components of the diet of monk seals, and therefore continue to believe that the small (northwestern islands) lobster fishery does not have any significant impact on seals.”

In a response dated May 1999, Twist admonished Simonds for failing to exercise due caution:

“When dealing with an endangered species and such uncertainty, we believe it is important for resource managers to adopt precautionary measures pending resolution of the uncertainties. In this regard, it stands to reason that fishing immediately adjacent to major monk seal colonies where juvenile seals first learn to feed would like have the most significant impact.

“We believe that precautionary steps to suspend lobster fishing around all atolls supporting major monk seal colonies are both prudent and warranted until such time as reliable information is available on the diets… of monk seals.”

In January 2000, Wespac argued back through a press release with this headline: “Don't blame fisheries for monk seal decline.”

Later that month, James Cook, Wespac’s chairman, wrote to Penelope Dalton, NOAA Assistant Administrator of Fisheries, to complain about the criticism coming from the Marine Mammal Commission:

“Predictably, the small highly regulated and limited fisheries in the NWHI are demonized once again as a major source of danger to this seal population.”

The day after Cook wrote the letter, NOAA announced its intent to close the fishery. Cook, who nine years earlier had been caught and fined $29,500 for poaching lobster, soon left the council because he had reached his term limit. He remained involved in Wespac’s operations, however, as chair of Wespac’s advisory panel, In 2003, his business partner Sean Martin joined the council.

But in 2004, Martin also paid a fine -- $7,000 -- for violating federal fishing laws.

Paul Koberstein