May 30, 2007

Monk Seal Drowns After Net Entanglement

HONOLULU - An endangered monk seal drowned over the weekend after becoming trapped in an unattended fishing net off Oahu's Makua Beach.

Another monk seal found partially entangled in the gill net on Sunday survived.

The dead animal was an adult male between 5 and 10 years old that had been staying around Kaena Point, said David Schofield, a marine mammal response coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The second seal followed the dead animal's carcass to shore and remained nearby for some time, barking loudly at people as they approached to disentangle the body.

A third seal did not come up on the beach.

The gill net was found 100 feet from the shore in water about 15 feet deep, a typical setting for that type of net, said Deborah Ward, a spokeswoman for the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

The net in which the animal died was not registered. State regulations require lay gill nets be registered, tagged, and be regularly checked.

The seal's death comes two months after new state regulations governing gill nets went into effect. The state also banned gill nets in some state waters in March.

The nets catch fish by entangling them as they swim by. Some Native Hawaiians say gill net fishing is a traditional practice and an important source of food. But critics say they deplete fish stocks and indiscriminately kill turtles, endangered monk seals and other species. In some cases, the nets stretch across hundreds or even thousands of feet in the ocean. The new state regulations say nets must not be longer than 125 feet.

Monk seals are an endangered species. Their numbers are dwindling despite efforts to protect the main monk seal habitat in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

"With only 1,200 monk seals left, and only 80 in the main islands, we can't afford to lose any," Schofield said.

In October, wildlife officials found a 5-month-old Hawaiian monk seal pup entangled and dead in a gill net near Waimanalo.

The female pup had been born on Oahu's North Shore and had been relocated to Rabbit Island, where there is a resident population of the seals.