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You may have read the news that Green sea turtles are nesting at Bellows Beach on Oahu for the first time in recorded history, and that as a result, the beach park campground is closed.

It could be that turtles took advantage of reduced foot traffic on the beach due to COVID-19 to nest.

On Kauai, we have received reports of a dozen or more turtle nesting pits around the island, a significant jump over last year.

While 90 percent of Green sea turtles in Hawaii nest in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, comprising the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, some have also nested on every other main Hawaiian Island, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Some years, more so than others.

Two years ago, Hurricane Walaka washed over an important islet for Green sea turtle nesting at French Frigate Shoals.

Green sea turtles are considered a threatened species in Hawaii and an endangered species elsewhere in the Pacific, and they are protected by federal and state laws.

According to Nina Wu, reporter with the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, “Female green sea turtles, depending on size, can lay from 60 to 160 eggs per clutch, and can return in two-week periods to lay more over several months before leaving the nesting area. Sea turtle eggs usually incubate for about 60 days, after which hatchlings emerge and make a beeline for the ocean, guided by moonlight. Only 1 in 10,000 sea turtle hatchlings makes it to adulthood, by some estimates.”

Keep in mind, Green sea turtles will make “practice pits,” as they select an ideal site above the high tide line and, often, near the vegetation. It takes the right humidity and temperature for the turtle embryos to develop.

Green sea turtle nest HawaiiThis photo of a recent nest laid on Oahu shows the tracks leading from the ocean and going straight back to the water. Note, the eggs are not in the depression but under the mound just to the left and a bit closer to the ocean. Most nests are not nearly so obvious and easy to detect. What also makes it challenging is some females will dig numerous practice pits before laying her eggs. In this case, tracks may lead from pit to pit before heading back to the water. If there is no mound, it could be that the turtle opted not to lay her eggs and abandoned the pits.

Screen Shot 2020-07-06 at 6.52.42 PMThe primary turtle tracks we see on Kauai belong to Green sea turtles. But there are also Hawksbill turtles that will nest in the Main Hawaiian Islands. The tracks of Green sea turtles are symmetrical in nature; whereas, the tracks of hawksbill turtles alternate. That’s the easiest way to differentiate the species. Greens can also leave tail-point marks, too, centered between the flippers.

Green sea turtles can grow to three feet and 350 pounds. Hatchlings measure about two inches. Their lifespan is unknown, but they reach sexual maturity between 20 to 50 years of age. Green sea turtles are unique in that they only eat plants—primarily seagrasses and algae.

Obviously, if only one in ten thousand hatchlings survive, these turtles have many threats, including vehicular traffic on beaches, dogs and/or pigs digging up the nests, drowning by ocean swells and high tide, and climate change.

Here’s an interesting factoid: The sex of a turtle is determined by the heat of the sand during incubation with warmer temperatures tipping the scales for female development. A recent study in Australia revealed that as air temperatures have warmed, so, too, has the production of female Green sea turtles—in some cases 99 percent of juveniles are female. With those kinds of numbers, the result in coming decades could be the complete feminization of populations of Green sea turtles. And that probably doesn’t bode well for the long-term survival of the species.

RJ36 lineSadly, the story of three-year-old juvenile RJ36 ends with a cautionary tale about the deadly threat of fisheries interactions.

Last Monday, June 22, three-year-old juvenile RJ36 hauled out at a west side beach, reported to be breathing heavily and with a long fishing line wrapped around his body. A response was initiated, but, sadly, RJ36 expired before help could be provided. The heavy monofilament line with a metal “pigtail” swivel, used for ulua slide bait fishing, was found leading from his mouth.

Initial examination suggests cause of death was related to the ingestion of a fishing hook; however, the fish hook appeared to be fully ingested.

RJ36 was born to RK30 along Napali Coast in 2017. Since then, he’s been a west side and south shore regular. RJ36 was seen on the south shore several times earlier this year while molting.

Due to COVID-19, no necropsy was performed; however, the body was collected to be examined at a later date. This will help determine where the hook was lodged and how it caused his death. The necropsy will also assess his overall health to better understand the larger issues facing the species.

RJ36 PC NOAA Permit 18786The loss of RJ36’s is a reminder to encourage the use of barbless hooks when fishing. His loss is also a good reminder to conduct a health check for all monk seals you come across on the beach. Check the body for any entanglements with fishing line, and check the mouth for any hooks. Fishers who accidentally hook a monk seal are encouraged to report the hooking as soon as possible. On Kauai, call 1-808-651-7668.

While monk seals have enjoyed relative quiet on the beaches around the Hawaiian Islands these past few months during COVID-19 shutdowns and sheltering at home, things are changing as people start to get out and about more. This month, on Kauai, there have been a couple reports of loose dogs near monk seals on the beach. There are also reports of 4WD vehicles driving on beaches, as well. Both are potentially dangerous to Hawaiian monk seals, green sea turtles, and other wildlife.

Volunteers are reminded that members of the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui are asked to provide outreach but not enforcement activities.

While volunteers are on official stand-down now during COVID-19, the best action a volunteer can take in the presence of off-leash dogs on the beach is to call the DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE) at 1-800-643-3567. In fact, it’s a good number to save to mobile phones. Reports, video, and photography can be sent to: respectwildlife@noaa.gov.

In the world of social media, photography has also led to citations of violators. With that in mind, video taken discreetly and safely of off-leash dogs and their owner–and vehicle with a license plate number, too–can result in charges and fines. However, volunteer safety is always the priority first and foremost.

Some longtime volunteers may remember a heartbreaking incident several years back when a loose dog (or dogs) killed a two-week-old monk seal pup and bit several other moms and pups. It was the first known incident of a dog killing a monk seal. So, sadly, it can happen.

Here’s a recent press release distributed by DLNR of some concerning incidents on Oahu:

 

THREE DISTURBING INCIDENTS INVOLVING HAWAIIAN MONK SEALS IN THREE DAYS

(Honolulu) – Once again DLNR is urging people not to disturb endangered Hawaiian monk seals, resting on beaches.

Over the past three days social media posts have depicted the following incidents:

  • A lifted truck, driving on the beach near Kaiwi State Scenic Shoreline in East O‘ahu appears to disturb a seal resting nearby.
  • At Nanakuli beach a man is seen handling a resting seal, causing it to move quickly away from him.
  • Also, on Nanakuli beach, an anonymous tipster reported loose dogs coming within a few feet of a resting seal.

These incidents are on the heels of another case in East O‘ahu where a pair of off-leash dogs barked at and appeared to be approaching a resting monk seal pup, causing it to flee into the water. The owner of the dogs was cited by officers from the DLNR Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement (DOCARE).

DOCARE Chief Jason Redulla said, “With the reopening of beaches recently, it is critically important that everyone gives resting seals wide-berth. This is both for the safety of people and seals. They are powerful animals and have been known to strike back at people who approach them too closely or harass them. Touching or harassing Hawaiian monk seals, including having loose dogs in close proximity to these critically endangered mammals is a violation of both state and federal laws and can result in high fines and jail time.”

Anyone who has any information on these incidents or witnesses a violation is asked to immediately call 643-DLNR (3567) or report it via the free DLNRTip app or call the NOAA hotline at 888-256-9840.

# # #

In the first half of the year, on Kauai, we’ve recorded one monk seal pup thus far with a couple more possibly still to come this year. Meanwhile, a total of 17 pups have populated beaches across the Main Hawaiian Islands.

Here’s a recap thus far:

Molokai: 10
Oahu: 5
Kauai: 1
Hawaii Island: 1

A few interesting bits of data about the 17 pups born this year thus far:

  • The first pup of the year was born on Kauai;
  • Thus far, nine pups have been identified as male and three as female;
  • Three moms are first-timers (RF34, RG30, R405), pupping on Molokai, Oahu, and Hawaii Island;
  • The “most productive” pupping mom this year is 15-year-old RV06 on Molokai, giving birth to her 10th pup this year;
  • The lineage of four (maybe five) pups born this year can be traced back to R006, also known as “Mama Eve,” with three grandchildren and one great-grandchild born thus far this year. There is no record of R006’s birth island or year.
  • The lineage of two monk seal pups born on Molokai this year can be traced to Kauai-born RH44 (born in 2000).
  • The lineage of two monk seal pups born on Oahu this year can be traced back to a Midway-born monk seal RS00, born in 1992.
  • The lineage of one monk seal pup born on Oahu this year can be traced back two generations to a Nihoa monk seal known as R912. R912’s birth island and year is unknown.
  • Three of the five monk seal pupping events on Oahu occurred on Rabbit Island, a record for this location. The moms of all three pups were also born on Rabbit Island.
3 RI pups_20200607_MDunlap

PC: M. Dunlap

 

Monthly Update: The Kauai team logged 147 seal sightings this month. This included 31 individually identified seals.

May: 147
April: 117
March: 200
February: 264
January: 319
December: 180
November: 223
October: 258
September: 203
August: 324
July: 239
June: 179
May: 262

New Issues

·       RKA6, a 2 year-old female, was found dead along the coast of the south shore. The carcass was severely decomposed, however a flipper tag was present. An examination found all organs liquefied and of little scientific valued. Following COVID-19 protocols, the seal was buried on site. Cause of death determination was not possible due to severe carcass decomposition, however no obvious signs of injury or illness were observed. The seal was in good body condition at the time of death.

·       Adult female R1KY appears pregnant and was observed logging in shallow water on two occasions. Her behavior appeared lethargic and odd, allowing wave wash to roll her around in an unusual manner. Two sightings since have found her acting normal, and she is still large and likely to pup soon.

·       Adult female RF30 was reported with a possible small j-hook in the upper lip. After further assessment and photographs, it appeared to either be a very small hook, which is of little concern, or simply organic matter stuck in her vibrissae.   

·       Received a report of two loose pit bulls on Moloaa Beach at the same time as a hauled-out seal. DOCARE was notified, but unable to respond. The Kauai Humane Society knew of these dogs and have captured them in the past. The seal and dogs were all gone by the time NOAA arrived. There was no evidence or tracks in the sand of dogs attacking or chasing a seal. The Humane Society will be contacting the dog’s owner.

Updates:

·       Due to COVID-19 stay-at-home measures, our new methods of monitoring continue, which include:

o   Weekly surveys conducted by NOAA and DLNR

o   DAR staff conducting weekly island wide Creel Surveys

o   PMRF staff continuing to send in routine reports and photos

o   Requesting that people who call the hotline to report seals assist us by sending several photos and setting-up SRA signs or sticks.

·       The juvenile pup, PK1, continues to be resighted at her birth beach and is in good health.

Volunteers:

·       The volunteer program continues to be on hold due to COVID-19. No volunteers were sent out in the field, however we continue to communicate with volunteers by email, the weekly blog, and by phone.

Research/Support of Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC):

·       Sub-sampled scat, molt, and tissue plug samples accordingly.

·       Logged all seal sightings for PIFSC database. Organized photos and reported sightings, molt tallies, survival factors to send to PIFSC.

 

According to the Hawaii Tourism website, there’s a legend that connects Haupu on Kauai with Kaena Point on Oahu.  It goes like this:

“On the southeast side of Kauai is Haupu, a peak with many stories attached to it. There’s the giant guardian who shared the name Haupu with the peak on which he lived, whose responsibility was to watch for invaders coming in canoes from Oahu across Kaieiewaho Channel. He once saw the glow of torches on the horizon, saw many canoes and heard many voices. It was a fishing tournament off the western coast of Oahu organized by the chief Kaena, but Haupu mistook this for a fleet of invaders and flung rocks at them. The chief was one of the unlucky ones who lost his life, and his people named Kaena Point in his memory. Pohaku O Kauai, one of the stones the size of a house that Haupu threw across Kaieiewaho Channel, can still be found off Kaena Point.”

There’s another thing that connects Kauai and Oahu—Hawaiian monk seals. It’s not unusual phenomena for Kauai regulars to journey to Oahu, often popping up first at Kaena Point, the westernmost point on Oahu. It’s about an 80-mile journey, point to point.

Screen Shot 2020-06-01 at 9.53.31 PMMost recently, it was RK90 who made the crossing. She was last reported on Kauai at Poipu on May 26th. Then, on May 29th, according to Monk Seal Mania, she was spotted at Kaena Point.

RK90 is an adult female who was likely born on Niihau. Here’s what we know about her:

RK90 appeared on a Kauai Beach as a juvenile in 2013 with a fish hook in her mouth. It was removed, and she was flipper-tagged at the same time. In late 2017, RK90 was sighted on Kauai looking large and very pregnant. Then, she disappeared for six weeks, returning in mid-February looking thin. It’s suspected that she returned to her natal island to give birth, something many, but not all, females do. In May 2018, she turned up hooked again, requiring beach-side intervention. In 2019, RK90 was regularly reported during the first half of the year and, then, not reported on Kauai from July through November.

Thus far this year, RK90 has been reported to the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui hotline on 25 different occasions. She typically ping-pongs between Kauai’s south shore and west side.

RK90’s journey across the Kaieiewaho Channel makes Oahu her third known island destination. She’s not the only seal to journey from Kauai to Oahu. This year alone, these one-time Kauai regulars, including a couple juveniles, have been sighted on Oahu. The year in parenthesis marks their first year reported on Oahu. Note, this year, five Kauai regulars have ventured across the channel.

RK90 (2020)
RF28 (2020)
RJ28 (2020)
R407 (2020)
R339 (2020)
R3CX (2019)
RG22 (2019)
RG28 (2019)
RH92 (2018)
R353 (2017)
R3CU (2016)
RW02 (2013)
RK36 (2013)
RE74 (2005)
RK28 (2004)
R5AY (2003)
RH58 (2002)

Over the years, these Kauai regulars have also been sighted on Oahu:

R8HY
R2AU
R4DE
R5EW
R6FA
RI37
RA20
R330
R313
RN30
R7AA
R376
R333
R1KT
R8HE
RO28

Kaena Point is a unique landscape on Oahu and important haul out location for Hawaiian monk seals, as well as, numerous native seabirds, including Laysan albatross. It’s a relatively remote and wild coastline. Kaena Point State Park is the gateway to Kaena Point Natural Area Reserve at Oahu’s most northwestern point.

In late April, Reps. Tulsi Gabbard and Ed Case proposed designating Kaena Point as Hawaii’s first National Heritage Area.

According to a joint press release distributed by Reps Gabbard and Case:

“In addition to its natural beauty, Kaʻena is a wahi pana (significant site), a rare cultural landscape with deep significance and meaning to many people,” said Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. “We must work with the community to study the potential for a historic National Heritage Area designation that will help bring the federal resources and protection we need to mālama this special place for generations to come.”

“Kaʻena Point, largely state-owned, is the perfect candidate for Hawaiʻi’s first National Heritage Area given its truly unique cultural, historic and environmental heritage and qualities”, said Rep. Ed Case. “The State of Hawaiʻi’s Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) has already created a management plan for the Ka‘ena Point Stewardship Area to protect one of the last few remaining and easily accessible wilderness areas on O‘ahu.”

“However, DLNR does not have the resources to fully implement the plan” continued Rep. Case. “Creating a National Heritage Area could bring significant federal dollars – with a state or local match – to help augment this plan and develop cultural programs, protect historic sites and improve natural resource conservation. It would also build on already-existing public-private partnerships which is specifically what our National Heritage Areas aim to create and sustain.”

“We are thrilled at the prospect of adding Ka‘ena Point as a National Heritage Area,” said Suzanne Case, Chair of the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources. “Ka‘ena Point receives hundreds of visitors weekly to both the state park and the Natural Area Reserve. Additional federal funding would allow us to enhance the visitor experience, expand community and cultural engagement and refine our natural resource management.”

Background: Reps. Gabbard and Case consulted with government and community groups in considering whether and which sites should be considered for National Heritage Area designation. H.R.6603 incorporates various comments, including a specific prohibition on federal acquisition of the land.

For years, Ka‘ena Point has suffered degradation and damage from erosion, invasive species and off-road vehicles and other damaging recreational use that destroyed vegetation, which made it unsuitable for nesting birds.

After the State established the region as a Natural Area Reserve in 1983, vehicular access to most of the area was blocked. The region can still be accessed via hiking trails, but those who come to the area must abide by strict conditions which has allowed nesting birds to return to the area.

Remote Kaʻena Point is the site of the last intact sand dune ecosystem in Hawaiʻi and is said to be named after a sibling of the Hawaiian goddess Pele. Kaʻena Point also includes a leina ka ‘uhane, an important recognized cultural site that, according to some Hawaiian traditions, is where the souls of the deceased leapt into the next plane of existence. Ka‘ena is also home to various protected species including laysan albatrosses, wedge-tailed shearwaters, monk seals and fragile native plants. Migrating whales can also be seen in the area during the winter months.

National Heritage Areas are locations throughout our country designated by Congress to recognize unique cultural and historic sites found nowhere else in the world. Though not part of the National Park System or otherwise federally owned or managed, the U.S. government through the National Park Service, funds and participates in partnerships with state and local governments and communities to foster coordinated conservation, recreation, education and preservation efforts. From designation of the first National Heritage Area in 1984, there are now 55 nationally, but none in Hawaiʻi.

We are sad to report that the two-year female seal known as RKA6 was found dead this past weekend in a remote location on Kauai. Unfortunately, a necropsy and cause of death determination was not possible due to the seal’s advanced state of decomposition, however there were no obvious signs of illness or injury. Following CDC, NOAA, and state COVID-19  guidelines, the seal was buried on site.

010

PC: G. Langley

RKA6 was born on Kauai on June 30, 2018 to the well known mother R028. She was the 4th pup born in 2018, and therefore known as PK4 until flipper tagged KA6 and KA7 after 39 days of nursing. She was also involved in a brief mother-pup switch and spent the day with another female until reunited with her mother.

After weaning she remained near her birth beach for the first 6 months of life. At 4 months old she was observed with a small fishing hook in her mouth, but she was able to throw the hook on her own without intervention. At 9 months old she was hooked again, this time with a large circle hook. The Kauai team successfully removed the hook and she fully recovered.

Sightings of her over the next year became very sparse, only being sighted 5 times total in 2019 and not at all in 2020, however on those few occasions she was in good body condition and looked healthy.

031

PC: G. Langley

Where she disappeared to is anyone’s guess, but this is not unusual. For example, a seal on Molokai was presumed dead after disappearing soon after weaning and not re-sighted for several years. Then this year she surprisingly returned to her birth beach and gave birth to her own healthy pup. It’s a good reminder that Hawaiian monk seals are wild animals with unpredictable and mysterious lives.

Updates: The Kauai team logged 117 seal sightings this month. This included 25 individually identified seals.

April: 117
March: 200
February: 264
January: 319
December: 180
November: 223
October: 258
September: 203
August: 324
July: 239
June: 179
May: 262
April: 348

The first pup of the year weaned from RB00 after 45 days of nursing. The female pup is extremely large and thriving, and will be flipper tagged in the future. A bleach mark (V00) was applied in early May.

New:

·       Adult female R313 was found dead on the north shore. During carcass retrieval a fetus and placenta were expelled. Both were frozen for future necropsy. R313 was removed from the beach and buried.

·       Due to COVID-19 stay-at-home measures, we have transitioned to new methods of monitoring seals. This consists of:

o   Weekly surveys conducted by NOAA and DLNR staff.

o   DAR staff conducting weekly island wide Creel Surveys.

o   PMRF staff continuing to send in routine reports and photos.

o   Requesting that people who call the hotline to report seals assist us by sending several photos and setting-up SRA signs or sticks.

Through this combination of techniques, we have been able to monitor and collect health condition photos on most Kauai seals weekly. The beaches were closed to the public so very few reports of people disturbing resting seals were received.

The female monk seal identified as R313 was somewhat elusive. Over the years, she’d be seen for months and weeks and days, gaining weight, looking evidently pregnant; then, she’d disappear for six or eight weeks. Only to reappear looking quite skinny.

It was always assumed R313 was born on Niihau and returned there when it came time to deliver her own pups, a practice that’s not unusual among Hawaiian monk seal moms.

In 2020, R313 was repeating this same pattern. She was reported to the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui 13 times since the start of the new year, first appearing on January 4th looking freshly molted. She was reported every few days thereafter until March 15th about the time COVID-19 restrictions reduced our volunteer efforts and all but eliminated beach-going activities. None of these reports indicate anything amiss with R313.

It was nearly six weeks later before R313 was next reported to the hotline, and on the afternoon of April 25th, she was confirmed dead at Hā’ena Beach Park. Sadly, she was also pregnant at the time. R313 was estimated to be, at least, 15 years old at the time of her death.

Screen Shot 2020-05-11 at 6.41.36 PM

Here, a resting R313.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, a necropsy was not conducted; however, her fetus and placenta were preserved for sampling and testing at an appropriate time in the future. This might reveal some clues as to the cause of R313’s death. There were no external signs of trauma, but not all trauma is visible. R313’s body was removed from the beach and buried.

R313 was not flipper-tagged but sometimes bleach-tagged as V23. However, she was easily identified by her numerous cookie cutter shark scars on her back and belly along with several line scars.

The most common causes of death in main Hawaiian Islands monk seals include fisheries interactions, trauma, and toxoplasmosis. None of these can be ruled out as the possible cause of R313’s death at this time.

As a regular on Kauai, R313’s presence will be missed along with her contributions to the Hawaiian monk seal population.

We now have a “weaner.” And a very healthy one, at that. Last week, after 45 days of nursing, RB00 weaned her pup, PK1. Last year, RB00 nursed her pup, RL08 for 54 days.

Because we’re still operating under COVID-19 restrictions, PK1 won’t be tagged right away; however, she’ll be easy to identify, since she (yes, a female) is our only Kauai pup for the year thus far.

For the next few months, PK1 will explore her near-shore natal beach, as she figures out how to forage on her own. She’s already been sighted tossing sea cucumbers around, so her innate curiosity is already leading her to what will now be her lifelong refrigerator, the ocean.

Here are a few photos that illustrate her, shall we say, rotund state;-)

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