The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the parent agency of the National Weather Service, isn’t joking around when it comes to policing online social media posts that show endangered species being tampered with. NOAA has the power to levy penalties that give the guilty up to 6 months behind bars and/or fines up to $50,000 to those that violate the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA.)
According to the ESA, any action that results in a “taking” of a listed species, including “harassing, harming, pursuing, hunting, shooting, wounding, killing, trapping, capturing and collecting listed species” could be subject to fines and jail time. The Act lists species in two categories, endangered and threatened, and the penalties for violations under the ESA will depend on which category the violation involved, and how many violations a person has previously committed. The criminal penalties for killing an endangered species can be as serious as a year in prison and $50,000 in fines, and civil penalties can range up to $25,000 per violation.
Recently, there’s been a trend with influencers on social media platforms such as Instagram and TikTok to document their encounters with rare, exotic, and often endangered animals. To crack down on the illegal practice of disturbing endangered species, NOAA has been going after ESA violators online.
Earlier this month, TikTok’er Lakyn Spurgeon and her newlywed husband, Stephen, documented an endangered Hawaiian monk seal they approached on a beach in Kauai on their honeymoon. In the video, Laykyn can be seen walking up to and touching the seal, only for the seal to bark and lunge towards her, scaring her away.
In an interview with the Honolulu Star Advertiser, Stephen said it was the first time they saw a Hawaiian monk seal and weren’t aware of any laws against approaching them. “We didn’t see no signs. We didn’t know anything but I know that’s no excuse,” he told the newspaper. ” However, the couple expressed regret after their TikTok went viral. “We love Hawaii and the culture. We didn’t mean to offend anyone. We respect the culture….We’re deeply sorry. We’ll learn from this mistake.”
Beyond breaking the ESA, in Hawaii, it is considered a Class C felony to touch or harass a Hawaiian monk seal under state and federal laws.
NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement announced on July 29 that they issued a summary settlement in the amount of $500 for Lakyn for her being in “violation of the Endangered Species Act.” NOAA added in a statement, “Pending the payment of this summary settlement, (the) investigation will be officially closed.”
While this incident is resolved, NOAA is pursuing other cases. The fine against Laykn won’t be the first nor the last against people found to be in violation of the ESA. In 2018, NOAA fined an Alabama man $1,500; he used his Instagram account to show how he touched a monk seal and harassed a sea turtle while on vacation in Hawaii.
Due to the combination of endangered species and tourists, Hawaii has been a recent hotspot of such illegal interactions documented on social media. Hawaii Governor David Ige took to his own social media accounts to warn visitors not to interfere with the endangered species: “I’ve seen an increase in distressing videos recently of what appears to be visitors to our state touching and disturbing our endangered native Hawaiian monk seals. I want to be clear that this behavior is absolutely unacceptable. Visitors to our islands – you’re asked to respect our people, culture, and laws protecting endangered species that are found nowhere else in the world. For those who don’t, make no mistake, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Hawaiʻi is a unique place that is home to many. We ask that you be considerate of all the people, and creatures, living here.”
NOAA Fisheries unit warns people to view marine life responsibly. “Sea turtles, monk seals, dolphins, and whales are wild animals and protected under state and federal laws.” People must remain at least 10 feet away from sea turtles on land and in water, at least 50 feet away from Hawaiian monk seals and dolphins, and at least 300 feet / 100 yards away from Humpback whales.
In Hawaii, NOAA has statewide hotlines to report marine animal emergencies, such as sick, injured, stranded, or dead marine mammals or sea turtles: 1-888-256-9840. They also have hot lines and an email address established for the public to report any illegal or suspicious activity dealing with marine life; they can call 1-800-853-1964 or 1-808-643-DLNR (3567), and/or email photos and videos to RespectWildlife@NOAA.gov.