Hawaiian Monk Seals in crisis

Hawaiian Monk Seal. (Source: NMFS Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center.)
Hawaiian Monk Seal. (Source: NMFS Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center.)
A Hawaiian Monk Seal on Hauula Beach Tuesday. (Source: Ramsay Wharton)
A Hawaiian Monk Seal on Hauula Beach Tuesday. (Source: Ramsay Wharton)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - By its Hawaiian names, Hawaiian monk seals are called "the furry one" and "the dog that runs in rough seas." They are found only in Hawaii and they are in crisis.

"They're very slow breeding marine mammals. They only have one pup a year," Jeff Walters said.

Walters is the Monk Seal Recovery Coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He said about ninety percent of the seals live in the Northwestern Hawaiian islands where only one in five make it to adulthood.

Tracy Wurth heads up NOAA's monk seal sightings team.

"It could be multiple factors. Food limitation. Perhaps they have a high parasite load. Competition with other seals and other apex predators like sharks and jacks. There are a lot of stressors that first couple years of life," she said.

About 150 monk seals live near the main Hawaiian islands. Sightings are becoming more frequent because that small segment of the population is growing.

Ocean scientists feel frequent beachings of monk seals around the main islands give a false impression the overall population is doing well. But even these seals face threats from fishing nets, disease and human violence. A number of alleged attacks on monk seals in 2009 are under investigation.

"We can't say who it is but there have been a few deaths in which we cannot rule out foul play," Walters said.

Hawaiian monk seals are protected by the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NOAA said if you see a seal on the beach leave it alone.

"We like to give the guideline of 150 feet or whatever is feasible based on the beach that you're on. Just enjoy them from a distance," said Dara Look, NOAA's coordinator of volunteers who respond to guard monk seals that come ashore on Oahu..

"We need the public to not feed and not interact with them. Give them some space and let them stay wild because wild seals are the ones that are going to help the species recover," Walters said.

NOAA maintains a data base of Hawaiian monk seals that have been identified through flipper tags, temporary bleach markings and natural marks and scars.

The organization is working on a plan to help the seals survive and thrive through vaccinations and de-worming programs.

Scientists think temporarily moving weaned pups from the Northwestern Hawaiian islands to the main Hawaiian islands will give them a fighting chance to reverse their population decline.

"Get them here fat and happy and healthy to where they have a good chance of survival and moving them back to their birth place," Wurth said.

"The idea of bringing down more seals from the Northwestern Hawaiian islands, even if it's on a temporary basis, understandably causes concerns with our fishing community and our ocean user community," Walters said.

NOAA's save the seals proposals will be out this summer for public comment.

Walters estimates the current number of Hawaiian monk seals stands at about 1,100. But it threatens to fall below 1,000 in the next few years unless something is done soon.

Through May, NOAA will hold educational outreach events called Monk Seals in Your Neighborhood at malls and shopping centers around Oahu.

To find a list of locations and dates go to http://www.fpir.noaa.gov/PAO/pao_MSIYN.html.

Copyright Hawaii News Now 2011. All rights reserved.