HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Teams from NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - have wrapped up this year's Hawaiian monk seal field research in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands.
Controversy surrounded their efforts this season because of their decision to try to euthanize an aggressive monk seal that, they observed, attacking seal pups. Today, NOAA defended its decision by showing us some very graphic pictures of injured pups after an attack.
For the past 30 years, NOAA crews have monitored the NWHI and the Hawaiian monk seals' habitat. During the March to August mating-breeding season, crews keep special watch for seals in distress, like ones tangled in debris.
But saving them isn't always easy.
This season, NOAA researchers say they made the difficult decision to euthanize - critics say kill - an aggressive, male monk seal near Kure atoll. Scientists tagged him, KE-18, and have followed him since his birth eight years ago. Recently, his behavior has changed. The pictures NOAA gave us are NOT photos of KE-18, but the agency says it's the exact type of attack and injury that he's caused. They believe he's killed at least three baby seals this season.
"What was so different, particularly with KE-18, is it was a very, very focused, what we call hyper-aggressive behavior towards these pups," says NOAA fisheries service leader of the Hawaiian monk seal research program, Charles Littnan.
When researchers witnessed KE-18 bite, mount, and try to drown the six-week-old pups, they'd scare him off - then watch him swim down shore and attack another baby seal.
Littnan says, "Right from the beginning of the season, when we started to monitor, it started to escalate and then, during the course of the season, whether it's because of testosterone or other factors, it got worse and worse and worse."
Monk seal experts don't know why KE-18 has become so aggressive over the last year. They don't know if he was bullied as a pup, has an internal problem - "faulty wiring" - as they put it, or something else. It could be a combination of factors.
Hawaiian monk seals are endangered and protected under the Marine Mammal act and Endangered Species act. Because of that, NOAA says it had only three options: transfer KE-18 to another natural habitat, move him to a captive facility, or euthanize him.
Scientists felt he'd be at greater risk adapting to a new, natural environment, if they trans-located him, and while four U.S. facilities are permitted to handle this endangered animal (Sea Life park, the Waikiki aquarium, UC Santa Cruz, and Sea World San Antonio), no facility currently has the means or resources to take in an aggressive animal. So, euthanizing KE-18 was the only way they felt they could protect the pups. They searched the waters for him for a week.
"We did find KE-18 on three occasions," explains Littnan. "Just none of them would allow us to capture and euthanize him humanely."
So, scientists decided to back off. With breeding season winding down, they're hoping KE-18's testosterone levels - and his aggression - will drop. They are worried that he may continue to harm other young seals, but by the time crews return next mating season, they're hoping some facility will be able to take him in.