by Hilary L. Maybaum
Did you know? I sure didn’t. But in 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association confirmed what many in the National Marine Fisheries Service already suspected: the Caribbean monk seal (Monachus tropicalis) was extinct. Last seen in 1952, this seal once inhabited the entire Caribbean Sea, from the U.S. Gulf Coast to the northern shores of South America.
Christopher Columbus first discovered the Caribbean monk seal, just two years after discovering America. By the late 1800s, however, the species was already considered rare. According to The Extinction Website,
It [the Caribbean monk seal] appears in the account of Columbus’ second voyage to America. Columbus promptly ordered his crew to kill eight of the animals, which he called "sea-wolves", for food, paving the way for exploitation of the species by European immigrants who came in his wake. Since then, the once abundant seals have been hunted for their oil and slaughtered by fishermen, who regarded the animals as competitors.
It saddens me to think how little has changed. Many local fishers in the Hawaiian Islands consider the Hawaiian monk seal—a close relative of the Caribbean monk seal— as competition, too. The endangered Monachus schauinslandi is an opportunistic feeder, eating a wide variety of fish and shellfish. It’s doubtful that the 100 or so remaining
speciesindividuals in Hawaii would have a large impact on the seafood stocks around the Hawaiian Islands. However, their opportunism gets the monk seals into trouble. They are known to "steal" catch and bait from fishers. Year after year, agencies such as the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources attempt to manage public relations on behalf of the seals. And year after year the fishers get angry. Some of them try to get even.
I’ve seen a Hawaiian monk seal mother and pup hauled out on the North Shore of Oahu, and it melts the heart. Let’s hope that our government agencies continue to be empowered to preserve the few remaining specimens for the sake of our future and theirs.