Hope for Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery

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Hope for Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery

Posted by: Kim Steutermann Rogers
Destination: Kauai
Mar 09, 2009

The phone call came just before 9:00 a.m. as a steady drizzle soaked my gravel driveway.  It poured most of last night, and I noticed the mud puddle that develops after heavy rains in a dip at the bottom of my driveway had already formed.  Immediately, I scanned my digital Daytimer in my mind.  Did I have any meetings today?  Any events to attend? I do not like to leave my home office when it rains like this.  I do not like to drive through that mud puddle, deepening the ruts in my driveway.  When I sat at my desk and checked my calendar, I discovered no necessary out-of-the-house appointments.  Good, I thought.

Then, the phone rang.  It was Wendy with the Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui.  Someone had reported a  seal at the end of Aliomanu Road–down the street from me on my home island of Kaua’i.

I pulled a pair of rain boots over my jeans and slipped a rain jacket over the T-shirt and sweater that I was already wearing.  This, then, is what I wore to the beach today.  Imagine.  When I arrived at the supposed spot where the seal had hauled out, I pulled the hood of my red rain jacket over my head–it was still raining–and I traipsed up and down the beach.  Note:  Long pants, sweater and boots are not my usual beach attire.  Instead of footprints, I left a trail of rugged-soled shoe treads in the sand.

And I never found the seal.  It happens.  Sometimes the report gets called in hours later.  Sometimes the location details are sketchy.  In this case, the call came in the morning after the seal had been sighted the day before.  Like seals do, no doubt this one departed last night for deep, off-shore waters and a feast of fish and octopus; maybe even eels and lobster.

On the south shore, however, Wendy reported the pup that was born last November–that we named Makani ‘ua (pictured above)–was fast asleep on Lawa’i Beach, with a three-year-old seal nearby.

While it may seem seals are popping up left and right here on Kaua’i and the other main Hawaiian Islands, they are still America’s most endangered marine mammal and the second-most endangered on the planet.  Overall, they number some 1,100, with 90% of the population located in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, where their plight is not nearly as rosy as it is here.  Scientists have tried to halt the decline and, yet, the Hawaiian monk seal continues to die off by 4% annually.  According to the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, over the last 50 years, the Hawaiian monk seal population has declined by more than 60% and is now at its lowest level in recorded history. Most people I chat with on the beach always ask, “Why?” and there is no one answer.  It’s a complex problem.  Scientists mention overfishing that leads to starvation, especially among pups; marine debris entanglement that leads to drowning; habitat loss; shark predation; aggressive male behavior; harmful algal blooms and climate change.

If something doesn’t change soon, our seals will follow the plight of the Caribbean monk seal, which was confirmed extinct just last year.

Thankfully–and hopefully just in time–last week, the MCBI reported Hawaii will receive $5.7 million for fiscal year 2009 to support NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Plan.  That’s a $3.5 million increase over last year.  Here’s what The Garden Island newspaper wrote about the announcement.

I’ll leave you with this interesting tidbit.  The Hawaiian monk seal dates back 13 million years, remaining virtually unchanged from a biological standpoint, which is why some call it a “living fossil.”  Let’s put the seal’s age in perspective.  At 13 million years of age, the Hawaiian monk seal is 12 million years older than the youngest of the Hawaiian Islands, Big Island, and it is eight million years older than my island, Kaua’i.  The Hawaiian monk seal not only plied these waters before early Polynesians but before the islands on which the Polynesians later landed popped above the sea.

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