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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bill would toughen penalties for harming monk seals

By Coco Zickos
The Garden Island

LIHU'E, Kauai Harming Hawaiian monk seals may soon become a felony, as Senate Bill 2441 was unanimously passed by the state House and Senate and transmitted to Gov. Linda Lingle's office Wednesday, according to Russell Pang, Lingle's chief of media relations.

The legislation would change the existing misdemeanor penalty to a felony, which could mean a person convicted of taking (harming, killing, harassing, for example) an endangered monk seal could face up to a year in jail and $50,000 fine, according to a press release from the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

"The governor has until July 6 to take action on the measure," Pang said. "The bill, along with all the others that are passed, will undergo a thorough review process by the appropriate departments and agencies."

Introduced by state Sen. Gary Hooser, D-Kaua'i-Ni'ihau, the bill "... emerged from a deep concern from monk-seal advocates throughout the state, especially on Kaua'i and Moloka'i, where three seals were recently killed," he said in the release.

Last year, 78-year-old Charles Vidinha of Anahola pleaded guilty to shooting a pregnant female Hawaiian monk seal at Pila'a Beach on Kaua'i's North Shore. He was sentenced by a federal judge to a 90-day prison term, one year supervised release and a $25 fine.

The killer or killers of a male seal discovered dead April 19, 2009 at Kaumakani have yet to be identified.

A $30,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrator or perpetrators. Federal officials continue to investigate the Kaumakani killing.

"The Hawaiian monk seal is vital to our cultural heritage and ecosystem and the species is in serious trouble," said Hui Ho'omalu i Ka 'Aina Vice Chair Maka'ala Ka'aumoana, who is a proponent of the legislation.

"It is our kuleana to do everything we can to help them recover to viable numbers. Each lost seal is a tragedy when we have so few. This law will help ignorant people think twice before killing a Hawaiian monk seal."

Save Our Seal Campaign Coordinator Keiko Bonk agreed in a written statement sent Friday.

"This is a great start to inform our residents and visitors of their responsibility to seriously care for our monk seals and other Hawai'i wildlife found nowhere else on earth," she said.

An advocate of the bill, Bonk adds, "It is my hope that the monk seal will teach us the importance of learning to 'cohabitate' with life in the wild rather than to continue our current path of destruction of the most amazing and complex life on earth."

"The more legislation and the more help they can get, the better," said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Mammal Response Coordinator David Schofield on Friday.

Even though NOAA supports "any of our partners interested in helping with the recovery of the Hawaiian monk seal," state legislation is not the organization's "kuleana," he added.

Education and fostering "acknowledgment at the community level that monk seals are Hawaiian" is more along the lines of where NOAA stands as opposed to taking a position on legislating stiffer penalties for harming the animals, Schofield said.

"We all need to learn to live with nature and monk seals," he said. "They've been around longer, before the very first people touched foot on the islands."

Less than 150 monk seals remain in the human-inhabited Hawaiian islands, where some 1.2 million people reside. That is an 8,000-to-1 ratio which "does not factor the approximate 6.5-million annual visitors," according to the Marine Conservation Biology Institute.

"Human beings have rapidly depleted 90 percent of the ocean's resources throughout the world and we now are faced with complex challenges for better managing the remaining 10 percent of the ocean's natural resources," says the press release.

"The recovery of our local monk seal is just one species, but it is an iconic species that serves as a challenge for our human species as we work to recover and restore healthy and abundant ocean ecosystems."

It is "... just not 'pono' to harm this unique Hawaiian species on the verge of extinction," Hooser said in the release.