None of the monk seals known to frequent the Kona Coast has shown signs of injury after one of the pinnipeds was chased by a group of unleashed dogs earlier this week in North Kona.
On Tuesday, experts with The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital were notified of an incident involving “several off-leash dogs scaring a resting monk seal into the water,” according to Megan McGinnis, animal care manager at Ke Kai Ola.
The center immediately sent a trained responder to the area, but that person did not observe the seal, she said. It’s unknown which seal was chased by the canines as the report did not include a description of a tag number.
Crews continued to monitor the area over the days, and observed no seals with signs of injury. All of the monk seals that frequent the Kona area, such as RA-20 and her pups, Manuiwa and Kaulana, have been accounted for.
“As the public looks to find access to the limited beaches open during shelter-in-place orders, it is critical they follow posted signage about safe wildlife viewing habits to protect themselves, their pets and monk seals,” McGinnis said. “Although the Center actively monitors monk seals that frequent Big Island beaches to check on their condition, our experts do not serve in a law enforcement capacity.”
McGinnis said NOAA was notified of the incident involving the seal protected by the Marine Mammal Protection and Endangered Species acts and state law.
NOAA’s Pacific Islands Regional Office and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center said Friday that fines for an offleash dog attacking a resting monk seal vary.
“OLE has had cases involving dog owners whose dogs had attacked resting seals in which the dog owner was fined $2000.00 for having a dog off a leash that interacted aggressively with a monk seal,” the office and center said in a joint statement.
The entities encouraged anyone with information on the owners of the dogs involved in the attack of a monk seal to contact the NOAA Office of Law Enforcement at (808) 725-6100 or the NOAA OLE Hotline number (800) 853-1964.
According to NOAA and state Department of Land and Natural Resources’s Division of Aquatic Resources, pets, including cats and dogs, can pose a significant risk to monk seals through physical attacks and disease transmission. In 2014, a Hawaiian monk seal pup died after being mauled by a dog on a Kauai beach; several other seals were bitten in the attack.
”Dog bite wounds can be lethal if they impact vital structures, and we know of at least one lethal dog attack on a seal pup in the past. Dog bites can also result in injury or infection, and the impact of that depends on the severity and location of the bite,” the statement from the two NOAA entities read.
Though Hawaii is a rabies-free state, close contact — even if it doesn’t result in a bite or wound — can spread disease.
“For example, we know that seals are susceptible to canine distemper (a type of morbillivirus) and that this virus has caused large die offs of other seal species elsewhere in the world. It is one reason why we vaccinate monk seals against this virus. However even with vaccinations, we do not want to take the chance and strongly discourage any close contact between dogs and monk seals,” the statement said, also clarifying that unlike cat feces, dog excrement doesn’t carry the taxoplasma organism.
The interaction also impacts the seal’s natural habits as seals haul out onto beaches for much-needed rest. According to NOAA, monk seals spend two-thirds of their lives in the water.
“Interaction with a dog could cause a seal to become alarmed and leave the beach. Monk seals require this rest to thrive in the wild,” the joint statement from NOAA’s Pacific Islands Regional Office and the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center said.
Further, seals come ashore annually to molt or shed their fur and outer layers of skin. During this time, the seals are immunocompromised and have diminished energy levels and must remain on the beach to get through the process, which may take several weeks.
”If a seal is displaced into the water by a dog during this time it could be impactful to the seal’s health,” the statement said. “Likewise, mother pup pairs may be on the beach for 5 to 7 weeks. Loose dogs may prevent the ability of the mother to properly nurse and rear their young.”
And, it’s also in the best interest of the pet and its owner.
“Monk seals can weigh 400 to 500 pounds and they have a large mouth with strong teeth,” the center and office said in the prepared statement. “Serious injury could occur if a monk seal was to get a hold of a dog that is off leash and not under the control of its owner.”
McGinnis, with the monk seal hospital in Kailua-Kona, said the public can play an important role in the conservation of this endangered species by keeping a few marine wildlife viewing tips in mind when visiting local beaches and wildlife preserves:
• Keep a safe distance: Whether on the water viewing marine life or walking with your pet on local Big Island beaches, a great wildlife viewing experience starts with keeping your distance and keeping pets on leash.
• Use your zoom: It’s OK to take photos and admire resting monk seals, but if you’re not using your zoom or they’re reacting to you, you are too close. No SEAL-FIES please!
• Call or text to report monk seal sightings: Contact The Marine Mammal Center’s Hawaii Island response team at its 24-hour hotline at (8080 987-0765. To report wildlife harassment, call NOAA Fisheries’ Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964.
An estimated 1,400 monk seals inhabit the main and Northwestern Hawaiian islands, according to NOAA. Approximately 300 of those seals cruise the waters and haul out on beaches in the main Hawaiian Islands.
Researchers estimate that 30% of those monk seals alive today are directly due to conservation efforts led by NOAA and partners like the center, McGinnis said.