Hawaiian monk seals received new legal protection yesterday when Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona signed a bill into law making it a third-degree felony to intentionally harm or kill the endangered species.
The state law was prompted by the deaths of three monk seals last year, including a pregnant monk seal on the north shore of Kauai that was shot by an elderly man who wanted to scare the seal off the beach so he could go fishing.
Monk seals found dead on the west side of Kauai and on Molokai last year may also have been deliberately killed. The deaths are under investigation.
"This is a strong statement in regards to our value and our treasure of the monk seal," Aiona, the acting governor, said at a news conference at the state Capitol.
Under the new law, violators face five years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.
The 78-year-old man on Kauai who shot the pregnant monk seal pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 90 days in the federal detention center in Honolulu. He also had to pay a $25 special assessment. The man was prosecuted under the federal Endangered Species Act. The maximum penalty under the federal law is one year in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.
There are about 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals. Most of the rare mammals live in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, with only about 100 in the main Hawaiian islands.
"It’s an ancient species that has been here before man arrived," said Keiko Bonk, an environmental activist who pushed for the new state law. "And we depend on this species, and the whole ecosystem in Hawaii, to survive."
Laura H. Thielen, the director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said the state is doing outreach with residents, tourists and fishermen about the importance of not disturbing monk seals if encountered on the beach or in the water.
"Native Hawaiian monk seals are our resources," Thielen said. "They are part of Hawaii. And we want them here for ourselves and for our children."
State Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, (D, Kauai-Niihau), who sponsored the bill, said the environmental community requested the new law after the monk seal deaths.
"Monk seals are part of our community. They are part of our history, part of our culture," Hooser said. "And when somebody hurts somebody in your community, there’s got to be a price to pay."
Aiona is acting governor while Gov. Linda Lingle is on a two-week trade and tourism promotion trip to China and Japan.