Imagine you’re scrolling through social media and a video pops up of a Hawaiian monk seal resting on the beach. The first few seconds of video capture the natural beauty of the wild seal, peacefully slumbering on the sand. But suddenly, someone appears from the side of the frame and starts to mischievously tiptoe toward the sleeping seal. You shout through the screen and try to stop this person from what is inevitably going to happen. But despite your efforts, another one of our Hawaiian monk seals is touched and disturbed.
Reports of people disturbing protected marine wildlife have significantly increased over the last decade. And over the past few years, multiple incidents involving potentially illegal encounters with protected marine species have gone viral on social media, including two recent videos of people touching and disturbing monk seals. These concerning and disrespectful images and videos have, understandably, upset many people in Hawaiʻi and across the country. Incidents like these should be reported to NOAA Fisheries or the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Here’s what you need to know about reporting potentially illegal marine wildlife interactions, how NOAA responds to reports, and what the laws are regarding protected marine wildlife.
What Should I Do if I See Someone Interacting with Marine Wildlife in Hawai‘i?
At the federal level, all marine mammals, including Hawaiian monk seals, dolphins, and whales, are protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. All species of sea turtles, as well as some marine mammals, such as monk seals, insular false killer whales, and sperm whales, are protected by the Endangered Species Act.
If you see someone closely interacting with marine wildlife—such as by touching or chasing them—in person or on social media, you may be witnessing a violation of the MMPA or ESA. The best way you can help is to report the incident and submit videos or photos of potentially illegal encounters with monk seals, dolphins, whales, and sea turtles.
For NOAA Fisheries to take action, it is important to provide the right information. Videos are much better for documenting an encounter. The most useful videos clearly show the behavior of both the people and the animals involved in the incident. Also, it can be very difficult to take appropriate action without knowing the identity of the people involved. Photos can help law enforcement identify people, vessels, or vehicles.
To submit a report, you can call:
NOAA Marine Wildlife Hotline: (888) 256-9840 (best number for all protected marine wildlife emergencies, enforcement is option 6)
NOAA Office of Law Enforcement: (800) 853-1964
DLNR DOCARE: (808) 643-DLNR (3567)
What Happens After I Submit a Report?
NOAA Fisheries’ Pacific Islands Regional Office in Honolulu looks into every report of potential illegal activity involving protected marine wildlife in the Pacific Islands Region. Our response to these reports can range from documenting the incident in our database, to conducting outreach to those involved, to referring the incident to NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement for investigation.
The most appropriate response depends on the circumstances surrounding each incident. Wildlife managers and enforcement officials continue to fine-tune a process that balances conservation benefits, available resources, and legal authorities.
Enforcement agencies are limited by the language in laws and regulations. We determine whether a penalty can be assessed based on if there is a legal violation. Even if we receive a report of discouraged or disrespectful behavior around protected marine wildlife, we cannot issue a citation if the activity does not constitute a violation under the law. For the majority of reports, the human activities depicted are not illegal.
Many other reports do not contain enough evidence to determine if an illegal activity occurred.
For every report, we make a concerted effort to educate the people involved on how to safely and respectfully behave around marine wildlife. We also have a proactive initiative to work with the community and our partners to educate the public on safely interacting with marine wildlife. With these efforts, we hope to promote coexistence with protected marine wildlife on the beach and in the ocean.
This StoryMap shows some of the enforcement actions we have taken to protect and conserve protected marine wildlife.
Understanding the differences between laws, regulations, and guidelines is critical to knowing what behaviors around protected marine wildlife are considered illegal. Laws are the foundation of our legal system and determine what is legal and illegal. They also provide government agencies, like NOAA Fisheries, the authority to take action to implement and enforce laws, such as by implementing regulations.
Regulations, or rules, specify how a law will be implemented. They spell out how the public must comply with the law, so they are also legally enforceable.
Guidelines, on the other hand, are voluntary standards that are sometimes issued to promote best practices, but they are not legally enforceable. They can aid the public in understanding the best way to be in compliance with laws and regulations.
Laws, Regulations, and Guidelines for Protected Marine Wildlife in Hawaiʻi
Marine Mammal Protection Act
Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, “take” is defined as: to harass, hunt, capture, or kill, or attempt to harass, hunt, capture, or kill any marine mammal. It specifically defines harassment as any act of pursuit, torment, or annoyance, which has the potential to either:
Injure a marine mammal (Level A harassment) or
Disturb a marine mammal by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering (Level B harassment)
NOAA Fisheries regulations implementing the Marine Mammal Protection Act further define “take” to include:
- Negligent or intentional operation of an aircraft or vessel
- Any other negligent or intentional act which results in disturbing or molesting a marine mammal
- Feeding or attempting to feed a marine mammal in the wild
Endangered Species Act
Under the Endangered Species Act, “take” is defined as: to harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture, or collect, or to attempt to engage in any such conduct.
Although some of these actions, like hunt, capture, or kill, are pretty straightforward, the public’s understanding of the term harass may not always be consistent. To minimize harassment, NOAA Fisheries established responsible marine wildlife viewing guidelines and regulations in Hawaiʻi. These guidelines and regulations help you understand the best way to view protected marine wildlife safely and legally and avoid harassment.
The general purpose of these guidelines and regulations is to promote safe and responsible marine wildlife viewing from a respectful distance. The guidelines and regulations vary based on the species and geographic area. For Hawaiʻi and the Pacific Islands, they include:
- 10 feet for sea turtles (guideline)
- 50 feet for monk seals (guideline)
- 50 yards for dolphins and small whales (guideline)
- 100 yards for most large whales (e.g. sperm whales) (guideline)
- 100 yards for humpback whales (regulation)
The recommended viewing distances established under our guidelines, are not legal, enforceable boundaries. Someone standing close to a turtle may not be violating the law, depending on the specific circumstances. However, approaching closer than these recommended distances puts you in a situation where illegal harassment is more likely to occur.
In contrast, the distances established under our regulations are indeed legally enforceable boundaries. For example, in Hawai‘i the viewing distance regulation for humpback whales prohibits approaching a humpback whale within 100 yards by any means, including by boat, kayak, drone, while swimming, or by any other vessel or object.
Please help us turn disrespectful (and potentially illegal) interactions into positive change by getting the word out about respectful viewing of protected marine wildlife and keeping a safe distance away!