MOLOKAI (KHON2) — Six monk seals were found dead on Molokai in 2021. The Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) said it was “unprecedented.” A nonprofit focused on preserving and recovering these creatures said there seems to be a “pattern.”

The Hawaiian monk seal is considered one of the most endangered marine mammals in the world. There are roughly only 1400 left. For so many to die in such a short period of time could be detrimental to Hawaii’s fragile ecosystem.

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“I’m just, personally, I’m devastated,” said Todd Yamashita, operations manager for the Hawaii Marine Animal Response.

Yamashita works for Hawaii Marine Animal Response on Molokai. He spent a lot of time observing L11 before she was found dead on Molokai on Sunday, Sept. 19.

“When you see a young seal like this die before its prime, especially some of these younger ones, L11 was the one that recently died and was about a year old, it’s likely not natural,” he explained.

Due to COVID, NOAA has not yet performed a necropsy to determine the seal’s official cause of death.

“COVID has made it really difficult. The federal government has restrictions on their labs and what they can and can’t do and how they have to do it. I know for a fact, they’re doing everything they can to get the necropsy done on this seal, in whatever way possible,” Yamashita said.

Five other seals have been found dead on Molokai in 2021 alone.

Two males were found in late April, also on Molokai’s west side. Examinations were done on 4-year-old RJ08 and 3-year-old RK92. They determined both died as a result of human trauma.

NOAA communications specialist Ingrid Biedron, Ph.D., said they do not know how the other three died.

In a statement, Biedron said, “Not all of those six seals were able to be collected and were in varying states of decomposition.”

“First of all, retrieving a seal is of the utmost importance,” Yamashita said. “You have to make sure that you get it recovered in time, the seal will quickly decompose.”

A study by NOAA that looked at all Hawaiian monk seal deaths from 1992 to 2019 showed that 57% of those deaths were caused by humans. Yamashita said there does seem to be a pattern with the recent deaths.

“The area where these deaths are happening, these are places that I grew up surfing and fishing, these are places that are frequented by a lot of other people,” Yamashita said. “It is true that monk seals do have interactions with nets, and fishermen –they sometimes do steal fish. But the majority of the fish is gotten miles and miles offshore and really deep waters.”

Yamashita hopes people realize that if they see a seal on the same beach it does not mean it lives there and is eating all the fish.

“These horrific actions, they don’t represent the character of the people on my island. We understand the cyclical nature of life, and we respect the role that each of our animals plays in this in our Hawaiian ecosystems.”

Todd Yamashita, operations manager for the Hawaii Marine Animal Response on Molokai

He said most Molokai residents love the seals and are doing what they can to protect them.

“When we see a seal, we should be pretty stoked because we know that our ecosystem is healthy enough to support this animal,” Yamashita added.

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Anyone with information about the monk seal deaths should contact DLNR at 643-DLNR, and those who wish to remain anonymous can use the free DLNR tip app.