Recent report shows Hawaiian monk seal population increase 

By: Geneva Diaz

5 December 2019

Preventing disease outbreak

 

The primary diseases listed of concern to Hawaiian monk seals include morbillivirus, West Nile virus, leptospirosis, and toxoplasmosis. 

 

Monk seals are extremely vulnerable to potential infection due to lack of antibodies. The morbillivirus is widespread and outbreaks of the disease have caused the deaths of thousands of dolphins and seals around the world.

 

In February 2016, NMFS started to vaccinate monk seals resulting in 84 vaccinated seals in the main Hawaiian islands and 654 in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. This is considered one of the first efforts to vaccinate a wild marine mammal species. 

 

The report stated, “NMFS hopes this will lay the foundation for future efforts to vaccinate marine wildlife against preventable diseases and safeguard populations against potentially devastating losses.” 

 

The vaccination program is currently in its maintenance phase; focusing primarily on pups and animals that were unable to be vaccinated in previous years.

Recovering Threatened and Endangered Species

 

The Endangered Species Conservation through NMFS launched an initiative in 2015 called  “Species in the Spotlight.” This initiative works with other partners to implement five key actions in the “Five-year Priority Actions Plan” for Hawaiian monk seals.

 

The five actions are as follows:

The break down

Lifesaving intervention

 

Despite the increase in Hawaiian monk seal pups born in 2018, these current numbers only show one-third of historic population levels. 

 

“A slowed rate of decline leading up to the recent population increase is due in many ways to NMFS and partner recovery efforts,” the report stated. “In fact, an estimated 30 percent of monk seals alive today are here because they directly benefited… from a lifesaving intervention performed by NMFS… such as disentanglement or dehooking.”

 

The 154 interventions to improve individual seals’ survival in 2017-2018 included translocating 45 pups from high predator risk areas to low risk areas, releasing 15 seals from being caught in marine debris and 18 seals trapped behind the Tern Island sea wall located in the French Frigate Shoals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Additional miscellaneous interventions mentioned in the report included “rescuing young pups from high waves and reuniting separated mothers and pups.”

There are only about 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals left in the world according to a 2017-2018 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report on Recovering Threatened and Endangered Species. While recent population assessments have “yielded some encouraging results,” says the NOAA report, “the predominant trend has been a steep population decline since the 1950s.” 

 

Neomonachus schauinslandi, also known as the Hawaiian monk seal, is the world’s only surviving tropical seal species. Hawaiian monk seals are endemic to the Hawaiian Archipelago, which stretches 1,500 miles from Hawaii Island to Kure Atoll. 

 

The 2018 annual population assessment by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, showed that Hawaiian monk

seals have increased in numbers by about two percent every year since 2013, nearly reversing at least sixty years of “steep population decline.” The population is now around 1,430 seals, with about 1,100 of those seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and the remaining 300 in the main Hawaiian Islands area. 

 

Decades of data shows that the recent growth trend is “primarily due to increased juvenile survival in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and stability or growth of the six subpopulations,” according to the report. The rapid growth that was once observed in the main Hawaiian Islands in 1990s has began to slow down and in some cases, stop entirely. 

 

The overall population of Hawaiian monk seals have remained primarily stable since 2013, although 2018 was a record year with 31 pups born in the main Hawaiian Islands (not including Niʻihau). This data shows a 30 percent increase over the previous record of 21 pups born in 2013.

Fostering coexistence

 

NOAA explained that in the past, a human population unfamiliar with seals resulted in negative human-seal interactions. For example the harassment of seals dragged out on beaches, hookings, and intentional killings.

 

But the report explains that “there has been a noticeable shift in public attitude towards the positive in recent years, due partially to the fact that seals have now been in the main Hawaiian islands long enough that residents are getting used to their presence and younger generations on islands with larger seal populations are growing up seeing them on a regular basis.”

 

This shift in positive human-seal interactions is also due to the educational outreach being done by NMFS, partners and community members, encouraging coexistence.

 

One approach to address this key action included outreach directed at fishermen while promoting the “It’s ok to call!” slogan, designed to encourage reporting of incidents and interactions. Department of Land and Natural Resources was awarded a grant to address harmful fisheries practices that impact monk seals and sea turtles.

NMFS makes a Community Based Social Marketing group

 

In the summer of 2017, a monk seal gave birth on a crowded beach in the Waikīkī area, also known as Kaimanas, one of the most populated areas in the state. The human-seal interaction was high with public and safety concerns.

 

NMFS started a steady stream of “strategic messaging” with non-traditional methods of public engagement such as “pupdates” which were live-streamed question-and-answer segments with NMFS biologists. 

 

According to the report, “pupdates” were produced by a local non-profit news group— “in order to disseminate messaging in real time appropriate to the evolving situation on the beach and address the public’s questions, concerns, and understanding of monk seals.”

 

This effort facilitated new and creative ways of communicating with the public and brought a new level of attention to the Hawaiian monk seal, not only from residents but from mainland U.S. and international visitors.

 

After the public awareness of the endangered seal became more popular, a whole network of self-appointed “monk seal ambassadors” emerged. They contribute to monitoring monk seals by calling in sightings, and public outreach efforts by taking it upon themselves to educate other members of the public when they encounter monk seals on the beach.

Photo credit: Mark Sullivan

Photo credit: Lealyn Papaya

Seal reporting “hotline” is a success

“Community engagement and monk seal monitoring efforts are cornerstones of our recovery program,” the report noted.

 

NMFS and their partners maintain a seal reporting “hotline” that also accepts calls for sea turtles and cetaceans. The number of monk seal sighting calls increased from about 7,000 in 2016 to around 9,000 in 2018. 

 

Recovery efforts continue

 

NOAA Fisheries’ Endangered Species Conservation initiative, “Species in the Spotlight” will continue to build and collaborate with partners beyond the five-year action plan to work towards the recovery of Hawaii’s native seal population.

 

To report a monk seal, call 808-643-DLNR.

Photo credit: NOAA’s Recovering Threatened and Endangered Species: For year 2017-2018 Report to Congress

Photo credit: Lealyn Papaya

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