A seven-month-old Hawaiian monk seal is recovering after a NOAA team removed a three-pronged spear from her head. Authorities aren't sure if it was an attack or an accident, but they're urging people to be careful.
A NOAA response team headed to Manana Island, also known as Rabbit island, on Tuesday afternoon after a volunteer spotted the injured animal. Members found "RL-12" with the spear embedded in her head.
"We know that the seal is lucky in that it was a very superficial injury and it missed the important things like the eyes and ears and the nose and things like that," explained David Schofield of the NOAA Marine Mammal Health and Response Program.
Team members removed the weapon. They also found a spear shaft about 30 feet away. The wildlife sanctuary is off-limits to the public, but it's unclear if the incident spearing happened in the ocean or on land. It's illegal to harass or harm the endangered animal. Last June, the state fined Travis Kane $1,000 for illegally landing on the island and throwing rocks at a seal.
"If this was an unintentional event, that should this occur again we would like those people who were involved to immediately notify us so that we can make sure that some veterinary assistance is called in," said Department of Land and Natural Resources chairman William Aila Jr.
Some fishermen have reported problems with monk seals stealing their fish.
"Fishermen and seal interactions are part of our future. This incident is heartbreaking and not representative of how responsible fishermen conduct themselves," said Maui fisherman Darrell Tanaka.
"We do say to people, if you feel like you're being threatened, you need to defend yourself. But we hope it's not with the pointy end of the spear. Use the other end of the spear or some other object," said Schofield.
Seal encounters also happen on land. A female seal named Irma soaked up the sun in Waikiki on Wednesday. NOAA volunteers made sure that curious spectators didn't get too close.
"Amazing, an endangered species to be so up close and personal and with a few good photos to take home," said Australian visitor David Greaves.
RL-12 was born on Manana Island last June. Marine mammal experts hope she has a long life ahead.
"She looks bright-eyed and healthy, and she just kind of swam off into the wilderness," Schofield said.
Experts estimate that there are between 150 to 200 monk seals in the main Hawaiian islands. Anyone with information about this spearing case is asked to call the NOAA enforcement hotline at 800-853-1964.
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