An Alabama man was fined $1,500 for touching a Hawaiian monk seal as well as harassing a sea turtle on Kauai, and then posting the videos to Instagram, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The Alabama resident, who was vacationing on Kauai last year, agreed to pay the fine, NOAA said.
NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement in Hawaii used the man’s social media accounts to track down his home address, then issued the penalty in an effort to educate him about the federal laws protecting marine wildlife.
Hawaiian monk seals — with a population of about 1,400 remaining in the wild — are a critically endangered species protected by both state and federal laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act. All species of sea turtles in U.S. waters are listed as either threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), according to NOAA.
In recent years, NOAA Fisheries in the Pacific Islands has been monitoring social media for potential violations of both acts.
In the video posted on Instagram with #monkseals, the Alabama man walks up to a sleeping monk seal on Poipu Beach at night, and strokes it with his hand. The startled seal quickly turns toward him, and he runs away.
As further evidence that he knew what he was doing was wrong, he panned his camera to a sign from NOAA urging beachgoers to maintain a safe distance from wildlife.
Adam Kurtz, NOAA Fisheries wildlife management coordinator, said most visitors who make these violations have no ill will toward the animals or any intention to harm them.
“Violations are usually the result of things like tourists wanting to get a good, close picture with a seal or a thrill-seeker trying to get a rush,” said Kurtz in a statement. “But it’s really frustrating when you see people harass these animals.”
Also, the man could have been injured, he said, because Hawaiian monk seals are wild animals that can act unpredictably. The seal could have lunged at the man instead of simply turning toward him.
While investigating the man’s Instagram account, NOAA’s officer also found a video of him aggressively pursuing a sea turtle while snorkeling at Poipu.
NOAA’s guidelines for responsible marine wildlife viewing recommends a distance of 10 feet for sea turtles, 50 feet for monk seals, 50 yards for dolphins and small whales, and 100 yards for humpback whales. It is against the law to harass, feed, hunt, capture or kill wild sea turtles, seals and dolphins in the U.S.
Members of the public who witness harassment of protected marine animals can report it to NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement at 800-853-1964 or email RespectWildlife@noaa.gov. To report a marine animal in distress, call NOAA’s hotline at 888-256-9840.