New & Noteworthy

Monk Seals Are Not Pigs: Hawaiian monk seals are critically endangered, with only about 1,100 remaining in the wild, 140 of which live in the main Hawaiian islands. While federal resource managers are trying to grow those numbers, fishermen have begun complaining that the seals compete with them and steal their catch.

Stories of seals snagging bait, messing with gear or harassing spear fishers aren’t uncommon, but new research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggests the animals aren’t gobbling up all the fish in the main Hawaiian islands. Not even close.

The seals do eat a lot, but they’re scattered across hundreds of miles of ocean and they’re not the only consumers out there, NOAA’s Rachel Sprague said at recent presentations on her research.

To better determine the degree to which seals are affecting nearshore marine resources, Sprague compared what they eat with what commercial fishers catch and what apex predatory fish are estimated to consume.

“This is about putting seal consumption in context,” Sprague said at a recent meeting of the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee.

She first estimated the seals’ dietary needs by taking what captive seals eat and adding 20 percent. A seal eats an average of about 15 pounds of fish a day, depending on size, she said.

Then, looking only at fin fish that live in waters shallower than 30 meters, and assuming a MHI monk seal population of 200 (even though only 130-140 were counted last year), Sprague found that apex predatory fish consumed more than 50 times what monk seals do. Also, commercial fisheries take 25 times more fish than the seals do, she said.

Sprague calculated that monk seals eat less than one percent of the fish biomass within 30 meters. To put it another way, the seals consume 1 pound of fish per square mile, she said.

What’s more, the seals only eat some of the species targeted by fishermen, namely surgeonfish, wrasses, and crustaceans, she said.

Petition Seeks to Remove Leithead-Todd: Bobby Jean Leithead-Todd, the former planning director for Hawai`i County, was appointed to head the county’s Department of Environmental Management in June. She had held the position once before, but in 2010, voters approved an amendment to the county charter that requires the DEM to be headed by someone with a degree in engineering or a related field.

When Leithead-Todd was up for confirmation by the County Council in July, six of the nine council members accepted the argument of Mayor Billy Kenoi that Leithead-Todd’s law degree fulfilled the new charter requirement.

Councilmember Brenda Ford did not. Instead, on August 8, she petitioned the 3rd Circuit Court to order Leithead-Todd to explain “the authority under which [she] purports to hold the office” and to enter a judgment that Leithead-Todd “is not qualified to hold the office of Director of the Department of Environmental Management” and that she “be restrained from performing the duties of that office.”

In support of the petition, Ford’s attorney, Mike Matsukawa, quoted from the discussions that the county charter commission held in considering the charter amendment in 2010. One of the members specifically asked former Environmental Management director Lono Tyson what “a related field” might be.

A “related field could be anything ranging from environmental science to even geology to a certain extent, but a technical background that supports a lot of the very difficult decisions that the director has to make,” Tyson replied.

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