It's not yet getting light earlier in the mornings, but when it's clear, as it was today, it seems as though it is. The first crescent of waxing moon that I spotted last evening had long since set, but faint stars still dappled the brightening sky when the dogs and I went out walking. In the absence of people noise, animal sounds grow more distinct, a pleasant phenomenon I reflected upon as we passed one section of pasture where the cricket song was almost deafening, and another where I could hear a horse's teeth grinding grass. And we turned toward home, the human-shaped clouds that lounged in the east, limbs akimbo, began to turn peachy.
Things are reportedly not so peachy for monk seals on Molokai, where state and federal wildlife officials are investigating two recent seal deaths. Necropsies done on a male found dead in mid-November and a female found dead last week indicate that both appear to have died under suspicious circumstances.
This prompted Molokai activist Walter Ritte to release the following statement:
“Our elders are saying that these seals are not Hawaiian. Our young people are calling these seals an invasive species brought in by government. The seals are now the easy targets of blame for the many ills of our depleting fisheries. We need to stand up for the truth: These seals are not only Hawaiian, but have been here longer than the Hawaiians. These seals are not invasive; they are like the Hawaiian people who are struggling to survive in their own lands. Hawaiians need to see themselves when they see a Hawaiian Monk Seal. How we treat the seals, is how we can be expected to be treated as Hawaiians in Hawaii.”
It's good Walter finally said something, because I've been hearing those same disturbing assertions for a while now. It started with murmurings that seals aren't really “native,” or at least not to the Main Hawaiian Islands, and expanded in more recent years to claims that they were introduced by the government. Both contentions picked up steam in the recent round of meetings over NOAA's plans to relocate juveniles from the Northwestern to the Main Hawaiian Islands. As I reported in the Honolulu Weekly:
“The idea that it’s a native is based on a lie perpetuated by certain environmental groups,” said Kawika Cutcher, a Native Hawaiian resident of Kauai, noting that the seals are not mentioned in the chant of creation or named as aumakua or ancestral spirits; nor are there any wood carvings, petroglyphs, oli, mele, medicinal uses or other traditional cultural references to the seals.
He also cited a lack of any monk seal bones in archeological digs, which would have indicated they were used for food by the earliest inhabitants of the Main Islands.
As a result of the article, a Hawaiian woman sent me a link to a website that she described as having “extensive information on cultural documentation related to the monk seal.” It includes some of the findings of a NOAA-financed project whose goal “was to conduct an objective assessment on the historical and modern cultural significance of the Hawaiian Monk Seal. Archival research was conducted, including searches of Hawaiian language newspapers and other resources. Several interviews were also conducted throughout the state with individuals from the Hawaiian community with a wide range of views on the monk seal.”
The site has some interesting material (use the pull down menu on the top of the page, as the one on the left side doesn't link), including possible references in the Kumulipo, or Hawaiian creation chant. In looking at the materials then, and reviewing them again today, I didn't feel they definitively proved that monk seals were historically abundant in the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). But that doesn't mean it makes sense to view animals found in the Main and Northwestern Islands differently, in terms of endemism. They're all part of the same archipelago.
Still, I found this paragraph in the “interviews” section especially intriguing:
In a few unique places in the archipelago monk seals are regarded as a natural part of the ecosystem and human-monk seal conflicts appear to be minimal. These areas tend to be rural and fairly isolated communities that are characterized by a higher degree of self-sufficiency, and where familial traditions and local decision-making processes are preserved. On Ni‘ihau Island, for example, monk seals became established nearly three decades ago. Community members discussed the social impacts associated with monk seal colonization (e.g, increased presence of sharks), and ultimately decided to act as stewards of the animals (Robinson, 2008). As a result, a sub-population has become established and residents have developed a stewardship ethic towards the species. A similar situation is occurring in the isolated Kalaupapa community on Moloka‘i Island, where another sub-population is thriving in the MHI, and where community residents largely leave seals alone. In these communities, fishers and other ocean users will move away from areas where seals are visible in order to minimize interactions.
The key here is “local decision-making processes,” something that is glaringly absent in resource conservation in Hawaii. It's always the state or the feds calling the shots, often far from the scene. I think what's really behind the animosity toward the seals and NOAA's relocation plan is the sense that once again, those who use the resources are being told what to do by bureaucrats and scientists who regulate and study the resources, and so have a very different perspective.
That's why Walter's statement is so powerful. It provides a framework for understanding the seals' plight in both a cultural and political context. Because the fact is, the state and feds do attempt to “manage” the kanaka maoli in much the same way that they try to manage other native species, from on-high and far-away, through laws, lawsuits, policies and regulations. And unfortunately, all too often through a divide and conquer strategy.