Rob Parsons

Glimmer of Hope

Hawaii's state mammal is in peril, with sharply declining numbers. Can they beat the odds?

by Rob Parsons

April 8 , 2010

A dozen years ago I met a strapping young man, just out of high school and working as first mate on a snorkel cruise boat. Much to my amazement, one of his duties on daily excursions to Molokini was to discourage a rambunctious teenage monk seal, known for making amorous advances on unsuspecting tourists.

I had read about "Humpy," as the seal was dubbed, and his interactions with surprised swimmers, mainly in the Makena area of South Maui. Agencies responded to the ongoing incidents by relocating the frisky seal to Kaho'olawe. But within days, the seal had returned and was frequenting Molokini islet, with its hundreds of daily snorkelers and divers. While some visitors were undoubtedly thrilled to encounter the rare pinniped, they may not have been aware of the dangers associated. To humans, yes, as seals are known to nip or bite. But much more so to the seal.

Hawaiian Monk Seals have swum the oceans for millions of years, even pre-dating the formation of the main Hawaiian Islands. Now, though federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, these kama'aina marine mammals are imperiled, with the long-term survival of the species uncertain.

Whether federal agencies, marine biologists, state legislators and volunteers can bolster declining birth rates and prevent further senseless killings of the docile animals remains to be seen. The odds appear long. But there is a "glimmer of hope," according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Mammal Response Coordinator David Schofield.

With a total monk seal population estimated at just over 1,000, Schofield believes the main Hawaiian Islands are the key to the species' recovery. "In the Northwest Hawaiian Islands [where the majority of monk seals reside] they are in peril, due to multiple factors," said Schofield.

"While the population on the whole is declining by 4 percent per year, here in the main Hawaiian Islands, the monk seals seem to be doing very well. They are fat—the moms are really big," Schofield said in June 2008, shortly after a bill was signed into law recognizing the Hawaiian monk seal as Hawaii's official state mammal.

But the following year, 2009, saw the fewest seal pups born in the last decade. Only 119 offspring were counted by NOAA Fisheries biologists, compared to 138 in 2008 and 207 in 2004.

"Every location [in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands] was down this year," Charles Littnan, lead scientist with the NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program told a Honolulu Advertiser reporter.

"The biggest problem is poor juvenile survival. Less than one in five pups that are born live to adulthood," Littnan said.

Part of that poor survival rate is due to competition for food. The protected waters around the Papahanaumokuakea National Monument are teeming with other apex predators, including sharks and ulua. At French Frigate Shoals, Galapagos sharks have been observed ambushing still-nursing seal pups in waters shallower than a foot. Sharks devour more than a third of pups born there, said Littnan.

That harsh food-chain reality has led to a controversial program to reduce shark populations. The April issue of Environment Hawaii reported, "With reluctant approval from the environmental and Native Hawaiian communities, the Land Board unanimously approved a permit to allow the culling of 20 sharks," at French Frigate Shoals. The one-year permit would allow for the shooting of sharks seen "pursuing, injuring or maiming" seals, or patrolling the shorelines when pups are present.

The cultural advisory group had not reached consensus on the proposal, and member Trisha Kehaulani Watson stated, "No one wants to find themselves in the position we do today. I firmly believe that the future of the Hawaiian monk seal requires us to take these drastic action[s]."

The ecosystem imbalances in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands are attributable to inadequate supervision of lobster and bottom fisheries, dating back at least a couple decades. Lobster, along with octopus, eel and small reef fish, are a prime food source for juvenile and adult monk seals. In 2000, three national environmental groups—Greenpeace, Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustice—filed a lawsuit claiming that the National Marine Fisheries Service had violated the Endangered Species Act by allowing gross overfishing.

During the 1980s, lobster boats set more than 1,000 traps nightly, with more than two million pounds being caught annually. By 1991, lobster stocks had crashed and have never recovered.

Monk seals have faced dire threats before and recovered. After being hunted to near extinction—only 23 seals were counted in 1890—their numbers rebounded to more than 900 adults by 1960.

Monk seals were slaughtered in great numbers during the 19th century at the same time the whaling industry thrived. A sealing and exploring voyage by Captain N.C. Brooks of the Gambia spent three months in the Leeward Islands during the summer of 1859, and returned to Honolulu with 240 barrels of seal oil and 1,500 skins.

It is reported that King Kamehameha IV visited Nihoa in 1857, officially annexing it for the Hawaiian Kingdom. An excerpt from the log of the Manuokawai reads, "At 10am went ashore…About a dozen seal were on shore and the King shot several of them."

Fast-forward a century-and-a-half. Despite endangered species status, two female monk seals were shot to death on Kauai last year, with a third death on Molokai deemed intentional but currently unresolved.

In May 2009, RK06, a pregnant female known to have borne five previous offspring, was found shot to death at Pila'a Beach on Kauai's north shore. A month earlier RK19, a five year old male was fatally shot and found at Kaumakani on the island's west side.

Last September, a 78-year old man pleaded guilty, claiming he fired four shots from his .22-caliber rifle only to scare the mother seal away so she wouldn't steal fish from the nets he was about to throw in the ocean. Though his violation of the Endangered Species Act was a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and a $50,000 fine, the man was sentenced to a 90-day jail term and a year of supervised release. No suspects were charged in the other killing.

The seriousness of the incidents wasn't lost on state legislators, however. Kauai Sen. Gary Hooser introduced SB2441, which raises the penalty for intentionally killing or harming monk seals to a Class C felony, with up to a $100,000 fine and a 40-year jail term. Rep. Hermina Morita introduced a similar measure, HB2235, which includes a component that would place informational kiosks in airports.

Sen. Mike Gabbard brought forth a pair of bills aimed at informing visitors about monk seals as well as the beaches and coastal ecosystems. Rep. Denny Coffman issued a House version that would require flights to Hawaii to carry a public service video on endangered species.

"Passing this legislation will send a message that the people of Hawaii will not stand by and allow individuals to take their anger out on innocent animals," Hooser said in a statement.

As monk seal pup numbers continue to rise in the main Hawaiian Islands, with 15 documented births last year, there will be a greater need for education. "We need to learn coexistence," said Schofield. "More seals will mean more interaction and more displacement. The main Hawaiian Islands may provide a foothold for recovery. We're trying to build capacity for paid positions—island-wide coordinators—and also involve the community as volunteers."

Nicole Davis works as one of Schofield's regional coordinators. She maintains a 24-hour hotline, supervises citizen volunteers and tracks all monk seals on Maui, monitoring their movements. Her data is reported to NOAA's Pacific Island Fisheries Science Center, which also deals with emergency circumstances, such as when a seal is found with a fishhook in its mouth.

Davis was a primary responder to a newborn seal at Koki Beach in Hana this year. She helped set up warning tape and monitor the mother and pup from sunup to sundown, and developed a new team of East Maui volunteers. "The Maui Marine Mammal Response Program wouldn't be a success without our partner agencies and awesome volunteers," said an enthusiastic Davis. "We have such a good network of volunteer responders, who also provide on-site education and outreach."

At the time a pup is weaned, measurements are taken and a flipper tag may be attached. In the case of the Hana pup, named RO15, a satellite tag was also attached to track his movements. Though the mother seal sometimes leaves her pup on its own after weaning, both seals have been seen in the East Maui area. Another offspring born a couple miles away did not survive.

Davis ran through the protocol when a seal is "hauled up," the term for time spent basking on a sandy or cobbled beach or on lava shoreline. "We set up barrier tape at a distance of 150 feet—more for a mom and pup," she said. "A person should not make eye contact or loud noises. Don't interact, feed, play with or pet the seals."

For a person spotting a seal while in the water, she advised, "If the seal approaches you, move away. Head for shore."

Biologist Bill Gilmartin began studying Hawaiian monk seals in 1978, investigating die-offs on Laysan Island. He worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service from 1980 until his retirement in 1995, serving as a vital member of the Monk Seal Recovery Team (MSRT).

The MSRT pushed for greater measures to aid survival of seal pups and launched efforts in the '80s '90s to relocate newly weaned pups, allowing them to grow and fatten in captivity before returning to the wild.

In 1994, Gilmartin and his team relocated 21 adult males to the main Hawaiian Islands to prevent aggressive "mobbing" behavior during breeding season that sometimes injures or kills females in estrus.

Following his "retirement" from NMFS, Gilmartin and fellow scientist Hannah Bernard formed the Hawaii Wildlife Fund in 1996, primarily to address gaps in recovery efforts for endangered hawksbill turtles and monk seals. Both believe that partnership with the community us key.

"We've seen an increase of larger, healthier animals in the main [Hawaiian] Islands," said Gilmartin. "With that, there will continue to be more on our beaches. More education will allow for collaboration."

"Monk seals are one of the canaries in the coal mine," said Bernard. "They are an indicator of how we have disrupted and altered the overall ocean ecosystem. The extinction of the Caribbean monk seal happened in our lifetime [last sighting was in 1952]. We need dramatic intervention to ensure success."

The Monk Seal Recovery Team released a white paper in 2007, detailing threats and trends and issuing a roadmap for species recovery. The Recovery Plan for the Hawaiian Monk Seal, actually a revision of a 1983 study, has an alarming cover, featuring a monk seal juxtaposed against a graph showing sharply declining population figures—from 1,400 just a decade ago to between 1,000-1,100. (In a cruel twist, the juvenile seal in the photo, photographed during its six-week nursing period on an Oahu beach, was found three months later, tragically drowned in a gill net.) To reclassify the species from "endangered" to "threatened" would require a three-fold increase in the current population, the report states.

Four key strategies are outlined to move the species toward recovery. At the top of the list is improving the survival rate of females, particularly juveniles. This could be achieved through maintaining and improving conservation and research efforts, intervening when appropriate, continuing protection from aggressive males and sharks and removing marine debris.

The recommendations also urge extensive field presence during breeding season for monitoring and research and reducing the probability of infectious disease.

"The big problem," Gilmartin emphasized, "is low productivity [in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands]. These seals don't live past a few years of age, don't reach maturity, don't breed. There are almost no young females reaching reproductive age."

Gilmartin and others on the MSRT have pushed for help with survival of young animals in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, as they did with fatten and release programs in the 80s and 90s. He said that the California Marine Mammal Center is doing private fundraising to build a facility at NELHA on the Big Island for that purpose. Hawaii Wildlife Fund is accepting tax-deductible donations to support that goal.

Will agency efforts, private funding, volunteer kokua and community education be enough? Can monk seals be pulled back from the brink yet again? "I'm hoping [the population] will stabilize," said a somber Gilmartin, "but it hasn't yet."

To report Hawaiian monk seal sightings in Maui County, contact Maui Marine Mammal Response Network Specialist Nicole Davis: 292-2372 or nicole.davis@noaa.gov. For emergency situations, call the 24-hour marine mammal hotline: 888-256-9840

NOAA Fisheries bi-annual Main Hawaiian Islands Monk Seal Count will take place Saturday, April 17, 10am-1pm. For more information, attend one of the following pre-count meetings:
Monday, April 12, 6:30-7:30pm at the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, Kihei
Saturday, April 10, time & location TBD, Hana
For info call 292-2372 or visit www.monksealmania.blogspot.com