PEARL HARBOR (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaiian monk seals are doing better than researchers had previously thought, but threats to their survival still exist, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's lead researcher on monk seals told reporters Friday.
In fact, Charles Littnan was guardedly optimistic when giving his annual "State of the seal" address at Pearl Harbor.
Thanks to increased efforts by NOAA researchers, the estimated population of monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands is 1,272, Littnan said. It was previously thought to be around 1,100.
"This year, across the archipelago, there were 184 monk seal pups that were born. That's up from 156 the year before," he said.
Even better, the juvenile survival rate jumped from 20 percent to up to 100 percent in some places.
"These are the highest levels we've seen in decades," he said.
Still, many threats exist.
"This population has been declining for years, for decades since the 1950s," he said. "So it's going to take many years of good trends like this until we're out of the woods."
Littnan also unveiled a new NOAA initiative called "Species in the Spotlight." It's a national, multi-pronged action plan, and its first focus will be on increasing the survival rate of monk seal pups and adult females.
Other measures underway include mitigating disease threats and developing vaccination programs.
"We're also looking at engaging the community better," he said. "Doing a variety of things with public outreach, education and public engagement."
They key to all these efforts is minimizing human interaction.
Last year, NOAA participated in 68 interventions, mostly life-saving measures such as disentanglements, de-hooking, and hospitalizations.
Littnan says about 30 percent of the population has benefited from an intervention.
For more on NOAA's efforts, click here.