HONOLULU - A Hawaiian monk seal was found killed on Kauai over the weekend, officials said Wednesday, bringing to four the number of suspicious deaths for the critically endangered species in six months.
The latest seal, a 3-year-old male, was found Sunday on a beach in northeast Kauai. A fifth death is being investigated, but officials haven't yet determined whether that seal died naturally or whether it may have also been deliberately killed by human hand. The others were found on Molokai and Kauai.
"It just adds to this pattern of continuing disrespect not only for monk seals, but for I think all of us here in Hawaii," said William Aila, the chairman of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources.
Hawaiian monk seals are found only in the Hawaiian Islands and are critically endangered. There are only about 1,100 remaining and the population is declining 4 percent per year. Scientists predict the species could disappear in 50 to 100 years at this rate.
It's a federal and state crime to kill or harm one of the animals. Those found guilty face up to $50,000 in fines and five years in prison under state law.
Also Wednesday, animal protection groups including the Humane Society of the United States added another $10,000 to the financial reward they're offering for information leading to the arrest and conviction of people killing the seals. The reward now stands at $40,000, or $10,000 per seal.
Randy Awo, the head of enforcement at the Department of Land and Natural Resources, said about 20 tips have come in since the line was set up in January. The information has been helpful, he said.
Aila and Awo declined to divulge details about the latest killing or the seal's injuries, saying that was part of the investigation.
It's not clear who is killing the seals.
But Aila said he's aware fishermen are concerned about seals taking some of their catch and that some people mistakenly believe monk seals are not native to Hawaii but are, instead, an invasive species.
Aila urged fishermen, divers, and others who are having run-ins with a particular monk seal to call the department and tell officials the animal's tag number. Wildlife managers will see if they can do some "behavior modification" on the seal, or in other words, teach the seal to stay away from people. On the other hand, Aila said some people may also have to be taught to stay away from seals.
As for those who believe the seals aren't native to Hawaii, Aila suggested they look at the archaeological evidence and listen to mele or chants that mention the animals. The Kumulipo, the Hawaiian creation chant, mentions the seals, he noted.
Aila said there was also some good news to report on the species: a pup was born on Kauai on Monday. It's the first seal born on that island this season.