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Information from Interviews


Interviews in Native Hawaiian Communities

Note: This is an excerpt from the offical report

We interviewed a representative cross-section of individuals with different knowledge sets, resource use patterns, perspectives and expertise to uncover cultural information about the Hawaiian monk seal. We also reviewed existing interviews that focused on monk seals, marine environments and similar topics for context. All interviewees indicated that monk seals were relatively new to ocean users in the MHI, with the first personal observations dating to the 1940sand most respondents not indicating experiences with the monk seal until the 1960s or after. These observations were consistent with previously published ethnographic research among local fishermen and community elders (kūpuna) in the Hawaiian Islands suggesting perceived rarity among tenured ocean users until the past few decades (Maly and Maly, 2003a–d, 2004). Many respondents noted that their encounters with monk seals have increased in the past few decades, and these perceptions were similar to those expressed by some community members at public meetings about the monk seal (ERM – West Inc., 2011). A separate survey effort indicated that more than 80% of respondents had personally encountered monk seals in the MHI, but their knowledge of the species was relatively limited (SRGII, 2011).

Respondents exhibited a plurality of views regarding the monk seal, ranging from hostility orambivalence to strong feelings of conservation and stewardship. This suggests lack of a consensus in the Native Hawaiian community regarding the monk seal and heterogeneity in perceptions and socio-cultural values associated with the species. Among interviewees who expressed positive views about the monk seal, a small subset of indicated a strong socio-cultural association with the species. Some interviewees described families on Hawai‘i and O‘ahu islands that consider the species to be ʻaumakua, the “family or personal gods, deified ancestors who might assume the shape of…[various animals]” (Pūkui and Elbert, 1986).

ʻAumakua are traditionally protected by their associated families and various cultural protocols are followed to steward the relationships between the family and their spiritual guardian. Notably, the monk seal is not named as a common ʻaumakua (Pūkui and Elbert, 1986), but this does not necessarily mean that the families have recently adopted this cultural association. ʻAumakua can be associated with families for many generations, reaching far back into history, or can be recent additions based on events that carry special cultural meaning and significance. Additionally, some communities have conducted spiritual ceremonies for monk seals during which the monk seal is recognized as part of the ‘ohana, or family. Respondentshave said that the details of such activities are deliberately kepthūnā, or secret. Some respondents shared mo‘olelo (oral traditions/stories) about monk seals that indicated a mythological association with the species. In one account from the island of Moloka‘i, a kupuna (community elder) told of a monk seal who appeared in the area in 1947 and washed up without a head. The kupuna indicated it was the work of Kauhuhu, the famed shark god of the area who patrolled the waters from Moananui to Pelekunu. Another mo‘olelo from Hawai‘i Island tells of a pair of lovers who suffered the wrath of the jealous shark god Kua. After his affections were spurned, he curses the woman, turning her into a monk seal and her male companion into a dragonfly so the two could not be together. The pair was later reunited in their human forms by the god Kū (Appendix).

These mo‘olelo indicate a historical cultural association with the monk seal, but appear to be limited to a few places where familial traditions have preserved the stories. For some kūpuna, the specific origins of the animal and its significance in Hawaiian culture are irrelevant, as the traditional Hawaiian sense of stewardship extends to all species and the environment. One respondent, for example, expressed, “whether they are ʻhānai’ [adopted] or hānau’ [born of, as in a son or daughter], monk seals are part of the ocean and we, humans, have an obligation to protect them.” This perspective has also been shared by other community elders interviewed about the monk seal (Seldon and Lucas, 2010, Watson, 2010). These views indicate an modern, evolving socio-cultural significance ascribed to the species by some interviewees, who draw on traditional conceptions of environmental and resource stewardship in relation to the species.

While some Native Hawaiian community members hold positive views about the monk seal, others view the monk seal negatively and do not associate any cultural significance to the species historically or in modern times. Among these respondents, the seal is viewed as endemic to the NWHI but not to the MHI. Some respondents view the seal as an invasive species in the MHI and believe the seal should remain in the NWHI only. Respondents commonly cite the lack of Hawaiian cultural references to the seal in traditional chants, hula [dance] and other knowledge forms. Other respondents pointed to the lack of evidence that the monk seal was ever used for food, tools, weapons, fabrics, medicine, or combustible material. One respondent emphasized that, “everything in Hawaiʻi had a common use… since there was no [use], then it must not be native.” Other respondents pointed to the lack of monk seal bones (‘iwi) found in archeological excavations or petroglyphs (ki‘i pōhaku) depicting monk seals. Respondents on Maui were not aware of any place names, sacred sites (wahi pani) or fishing shrines (koʻa) named after the monk seal. They also mentioned that their kūpuna (elders) never mentioned the monk seal, and that they did not know of any families that regarded the monk seal as their ‘aumakua (spiritual family guardian).

The most commonly cited source of human-monk seal conflict is negative interactions with fishers (primarily men in Hawai‘i). Fishing has a long history in Hawai‘i and is embedded in the socio-cultural traditions and subsistence lifestyles of Hawaiian communities (Glazier, 2007, Titcomb, 1972).

Monk seals are viewed by Native Hawaiian fishers and their families as direct competitors, in that they preferentially take fish specifically targeted by fishers. Many respondents believe that when interactions occur, they inhibit the ability of fishers to provide food for the household. Other fishers cite the aggressive behavior of monk seals as a major problem. Common interactions include seals taking fish off of lines or out of fishers’ nets, but increasingly seals are interacting with boats and fishermen directly – in some cases, fishers have been bitten by monk seals. These interactions are viewed by some as impacting cultural fishing practices, and are further compounded by existing regulations that restrict fishing and the depleted condition of fisheries resources in the MHI.

Among respondents who view the species negatively, the belief that the monk seal is not endemic is exacerbated by the prohibitions against interacting with the seal. Some respondents state the perspective that modern cultural knowledge cannot be generated because the monk seal “cannot be touched and used for anything.” Restrictions on use have precluded indigenous communities from perpetuating cultural traditions for other protected species such as sea turtles (Kinan and Dalzell, 2005, Rudrud, 2010). Ancient cultural knowledge is believed to be nonexistent due to the recent arrival of the monk seal in the MHI, but respondents also suggested that modern knowledge of the seal will accrue with the current generation that is interacting with the monk seal. A key question among this group is how seals will be integrated into Hawaiian culture and what will the cultural exchange be with the species in the modern context.

In a few unique places in the archipelago monk seals are regarded as a natural part of the ecosystem and human-monk seal conflicts appear to be minimal. These areas tend to be rural and fairly isolated communities that are characterized by a higher degree of selfsufficiency, and where familial traditions and local decision-making processes are preserved. On Ni‘ihau Island, for example, monk seals became established nearly three decades ago. Community members discussed the social impacts associated with monk seal colonization (e.g, increased presence of sharks), and ultimately decided to act as stewards of the animals (Robinson, 2008). As a result, a sub-population has become established and residents have developed a stewardship ethic towards the species. A similar situation is occurring in the isolated Kalaupapa community on Moloka‘i Island, where another sub-population is thriving in the MHI, and where community residents largely leave seals alone. In these communities, fishers and other ocean users will move away from areas where seals are visible in order to minimize interactions.

Finding Balance

Nā Mea Hulu is a project by Honua Consulting, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal is to find ways to protect the dwindling monk seal population without impacting the practices and livelihoods of Hawaiians and fisherman.

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