Up to 10 Galapagos Sharks May Be Culled To Protect Seal Pups at Northwestern Shoals
Galapagos sharks began preying on still-nursing monk seal pups at French Frigate Shoals only within the last decade, according to monk seal expert George “Bud” Antonelis, who has recently been granted permission by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources to cull up to five of those sharks from waters within the state’s Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine Refuge, with the possibility of taking five more.
At the board’s June 9 meeting, Antonelis said that at most 20 Galapagos sharks have learned this behavior, which he said was probably caused by two developments: the killing of pups by aggressive male monk seals that began several years ago, with the carcasses left in the water; and the disappearance of the popular pupping site Whaleskate, which concentrated seal births at Trig Island, one of several small islands at French Frigate Shoals.
Although the aggressive male seals at French Frigate have been relocated to Johnston Atoll, the sharks continue to target monk seal pups. Unless these rogue sharks are removed from the ecosystem, they could spread this behavior throughout the archipelago, which would be devastating to the endangered monk seals, Antonelis said. Fewer than 1,200 Hawaiian monk seals remain in the wild.
Over the last six years, Antonelis, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had been culling an average of two sharks per year at French Frigate Shoals under a permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. With last year’s establishment of the state’s Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine Refuge, which includes waters out to three miles from shore, Antonelis needed a permit from the Land Board, as well, to continue his work this year.
In March, Antonelis sought Land Board approval for culling up to 15 Galapagos sharks attempting to feed on nursing pups at French Frigate Shoals. On March 23, the board deferred approving the permit because the FWS had expressed concerns about the proposed use of high-powered rifles to kill the sharks, and because Native Hawaiian and environmental community representatives had raised questions about the need for and appropriateness of killing one species – an `aumakua (family or personal god, or deified ancestor), to boot – to save another. Land Board member Tim Johns also voiced concern about the effect removing predators would have on a predator-dominated ecosystem.
Over the next several weeks, the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources and Antonelis consulted with a several Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and the FWS about the project. DAR brought the matter back to the Land Board on June 9. Based on the consultations, DAR recommended that the board grant a permit to Antonelis to kill five sharks, with the possibility of five more following consultation with federal and state agencies and the Native Hawaiian community. DAR also recommended that the use of high-powered rifles be prohibited.
Although Antonelis and DAR’s Athline Clark had garnered general support from the Native Hawaiian cultural practitioners and experts they consulted with (Leimana DaMate, Carlos Andrade, Buzzy Agard, William Aila, and Kepa Maly, among others), Vicky Holt Takamine, president of the `Ilio`ulaokalani Coalition (a coalition of Hawaiian cultural practitioners), submitted testimony to the board opposing the permit request.
“We are interested in protecting all of the resources in these islands and therefore cannot support the killing of the Galapagos sharks. The mano [shark] is our `aumakua as are the monk seals,” she wrote in a June 9 letter.
At the meeting, at-large Land Board member Sam Gon, a biologist with The Nature Conservancy of Hawai`i and a Hawaiian cultural practitioner, noted that while removing key predators can have dramatic ecosystem effects, “This isn’t just a matter of selecting ones that happen to be attacking pups. [Antonelis has] had a chance to document that these are key individuals that have taken on the habit.”
Gon added, “In researching mo`olelo (oral history) and talking to people about sharks over the years, there certainly is a precedent in Hawaiian mo`olelo of sharks — individual sharks — that have learned predatory behavior, and the need for people to remove sharks that have shown, say, a predilection for humans in a particular area. These sharks are known and when they are removed, it’s a conscious decision and not an attack on all sharks and done with respect of those sharks as individuals.”
He then suggested adding a requirement that Antonelis have a cultural practitioner on site to ensure the killing is done in a culturally sensitive manner.
While other board members agreed with this condition, Antonelis and Clark argued that following it was easier said than done. Although Antonelis said he had issued a request for proposals to cultural practitioners to join his crew at FFS, it’s difficult to find someone who can spend one to three months in such a remote location, Clark said.
As a compromise, the Land Board added a condition that before any sharks are killed, a native Hawaiian must brief Antonelis’ team on the proper protocols. Should Antonelis reach his five-shark limit and need to kill up to five more, the board required that he provide a report and get its approval at a regular Land Board meeting.
With these new conditions, the board unanimously approved the permit. Before the vote, Land Board chair Peter Young noted that he had originally opposed the project, and described how members of his family had hunted and fished for sharks in the past.
“We thought back then, the right thing to do if someone got bit by a shark was to go kill as many sharks as you can,” he said. “I also saw the Kohala shark hunts that happened on the Big Island [in the 1950s]. It was a different time then, and I learned from that – that we ought to do things differently. So when I heard that you were going to go kill sharks, it was like, ‘Oh wait, I thought we learned about that.’ But it appears that this is different…and while we have an obligation to both the shark and the monk seal, there is a serious concern about the populations of monk seals and what’s going to happen to them.”
“I’m inclined to see how we might be able to help the monk seal population, possibly with the limited sacrifice of a few Galapagos sharks that maybe have learned this behavior that we don’t want others to learn” Young said.
Spinner dolphins shot with biopsy darts from a modified rifle exhibit “a small startle response to the biopsy,” but quickly resume frolicking near the boat, according to Dr. Leszek Karczmarski, a marine biology professor at Texas A&M whose request for a permit to biopsy, record, and photograph spinner dolphins in the lagoon at Kure Atoll came before the board on June 9. Kure Atoll is the northernmost island in the Hawaiian archipelago.
Karczmarski’s was one of several permit requests to conduct activities in the state’s Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine Refuge, and one of the two that raised opposition from the `Ilio`ulaokalani Coalition.
The coalition submitted testimony opposing the acoustic and genetic sampling of one of its `aumakua. In response, Karczmarski explained her biopsy process, which she said was quite standard. The sterilized darts take five millimeter-wide tissue samples from the dolphins, and the rifles from which they’re fired have been modified to reduce the velocity of the dart, she said.
She also clarified that her acoustic sampling did not entail emitting any sound. She was interested only in recording the dolphins, she said.
When Land Board member Tim Johns asked why the sampling could not be done in the Main Hawaiian Islands, Karczmarski said that dolphins here are not the same as those in the northwestern islands. They look different, and they have different social systems, she said.
Karczmarski’s permit was unanimously approved, as were permits to map waters surrounding Kure Atoll and Pearl and Hermes Atoll, remove marine debris throughout the refuge, and study historic shipwrecks at Kure Atoll and Pearl and Hermes Atoll.
San Diego Zoo Continues
Propagation of Rare Birds
For the fourth time, the Zoologial Society of San Diego has received an exclusive 2-year contract from the Land Board to run the state’s endangered bird facilities on Maui and Hawai`i, which focus on the captive propagation and reintroduction into the wild of the `alala (the Hawaiian crow), puaiohi (Kaua`i thrush), nene (Hawaiian goose), Maui parrotbill, and palila (finch-billed honeycreeper).
The contract, approved at the Land Board’s May 26 meeting and amended on June 23, provides $742,000 in U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Funds that have been provided to the state ($392,000 in fiscal year 2007, and $350,000 in FY 2008). The ZSSD will provide $237,333 in private funds or in-kind services.
Under this new contract, the zoo society hopes to infuse its captive flock of ten Maui parrotbills – most of which are offspring of a single female – with wild stock, by collecting eggs and nestlings from the northwestern slopes of Haleakala, home to the last 500 or so wild Maui parrotbills.
“Given the relatively small number of wild individuals, the source of birds for a second population should be captive reared individuals. Ongoing restoration efforts in the Kahikinui region of leeward east Maui by the [state] Division of Forestry and Wildlife and its partners, makes this location a likely re-introduction site,” a June 23 DOFAW report states.
According to the society’s website, in December 2005, seven palila were released near Pu`u Mali on the north flank of Mauna Kea. So far this year, the Maui Bird Conservation Center released 25 nene goslings at Haleakala crater. And on April 20, the center celebrated the birth of its 200th puaoihi, which will either join the facility’s captive breeding flock or be released at the Alaka`i swamp on Kaua`i, where dozens of captive-born puaiohi have been released.
— Teresa Dawson
Volume 17, Number 1 July 2006