Saving the Most Endangered Seal in The U.S. One Monk at a Time

by Carolyn Sotka

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This is YF26, one of the first patients released from the new Hawaiian monk seal hospital ‘Ke Kai Ola’ and re-located to Laysan Island as a part of the species’ recovery plan. Photo by H. Ronco. NMFS Permit 16632.

For several years in the mid-90’s, I had the opportunity to work at the Marine Mammal Center (MMC), a world-class rescue and rehabilitation hospital for marine mammals, located north of San Francisco in the Marin Headlands. This was the beginning of my career in marine conservation and I was immediately exposed to how swift and severe human activities can impact the environment and marine life.

Since its conception in 1975, the MMC has rescued and treated over 18,000 elephant seals, sea lions, whales, sea otters, harbor seals, fur seals, dolphins, harbor porpoises and more – many from threatened and endangered species.

Today, one of the most endangered seals in the world, the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi), is getting a second chance at survival with the help of the MMC, NOAA and a brand new hospital.

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As part of the Tuesday Day crew, we helped rehabilitate sick and injured marine mammals so that the healthy ones can return back to the wild.

In early September, the Hawaiian monk seal hospital opened on the Big Island. Named the Ke Kai Ola (The Healing Sea), it is a place of great healing not just for the seals but also for humans, as they gather to care for and learn about this native Hawaiian species through public outreach programs.

The Hawaiian monk seal is one of only three known monk seal species. With roughly 1,100 left in the Hawaiian Archipelago, each and every seal saved, is one step away from extinction. The Caribbean monk seal was last seen in the wild in 1952 and the Mediterranean monk seal is facing a similar struggle, with numbers in the low hundreds.

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Two young female monk seals on their way to Ke Kai Ola. These pups were likely weaned at too young an age, and have a low weight and poor chance of survival in the wild. Photo: Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program.

The monk seal is one of only two mammals indigenous to Hawaii (the other being the Hawaiian Hoary Bat). Considered a ‘living fossil’, the seal is the oldest of all phocids or true seals, isolated from their closest pinniped relatives over 15 million years ago. Evidence points to monk seals migrating to Hawaii between 4-11 million years ago. They’re  so-named for folds of skin that resemble a monk’s cowl, and because they are usually solitary or found in small groups. Hawaiians call the seal `Ilio holo I ka uaua’, which means, “dog that runs in rough water.”

Like many other marine mammals, the monk seals face a litany of threats; net and fishing line entanglements, ocean trash, gunshot wounds, illegal pick-ups, and boat strikes to changes in climate and food chain, malnourishment and exposure to diseases and viruses. The cumulative impact of all these factors is analogous to the sealing expeditions of the mid-19th century that reduced the Hawaiian populations to near extinction.

Some argue that when stranded animals like monk seals are discovered sick, they should be weeded out by natural selection to ‘let nature do its thing’, but most marine mammal and other threatened species experts don’t agree. The health of marine mammals is inextricably tied to ocean health and human activity – something those mammals have no control over. We do though. And we can try to reverse the trends.

Much like restoration efforts along the coast and on land, giving nature a helping hand can increase marine mammal population numbers and resilience to collapse. With Hawaiian monk seal populations declining at a rate about 4.5% per year, all hands are on deck to prevent its extinction.

On isolated islands like Hawaii, species can rapidly evolve and rapidly go extinct. Hawaiian wildlife is both special and specialized for the island environment. This can lead to extreme vulnerability and the every day reality that a species might be at the end of its line.

The good news for the Hawaiian monk seal is that the world is paying attention, with dedicated scientists, volunteers and the brand new Ke Kai Ola hospital to boost their chances for survival.

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) is based at the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and their work alongside many partners is aimed at enhancing recovery through research, conservation and preventing as many seal deaths as possible.

The 2014 summer’s seal counts from HMSRP show an increase of pups to 121 born this year, compared to 103 pups last year and 111 pups in 2012. Preliminary numbers indicate that survival of young seals may be improving overall as well.

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Sometimes a weaned pup displaces another suckling pup and benefits from the extra milk. They are called ‘super weaners’ and this is probably what allowed TF67 to become this large. It has been said that some ‘super weaners’ get so fat they can’t move and need to wait a few days to lose the extra pounds. Photo by W. Taylor. NMFS permit 16632.

As another bit of good news, most of the monk seal’s range is within the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which was designated on June 15, 2006 – coincidentally the same day my son Kai was born. The Hawaiian name given to the marine protected area roughly translates to the ‘union of earth mother and sky father and the birth of all Hawaiian descendents and the islands’. It’s meant to capture the connection between humans and the environment and our responsibility to protect it.

Listen to the story and the meaning behind the name Papahānaumokuākea. 

Papahānaumokuākea is adjacent to the  Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument (PRINMM), newly expanded by  President Obama last week, from 87,000 square miles to more than 490,000 square miles. Check out our Scuttlefish coverage of the expansion.

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See the first monk seals that were rescued and brought to Ke Kai Ola for their treatment and care. Video by David Corrigan and the MMC.

See how you can support the monk seal ongoing care at Ke Kai Ola and learn what you can do to help the Hawaiian monk seal by visiting the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center.

Track the Hawaiian monk seal and other conservation activities on the Hawaiian Monk Seal Restoration Project Facebook page.

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Photo by Jessica Farrer.

It is pretty easy to fall in love with these rare and beautiful creatures, I know I have.  –CS

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