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4 monk seals are Big Isle hospital's first patients

The mammals found in the northwest isles will be treated for malnutrition

By Audrey McAvoy / Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 1:54 a.m. HST, Jul 10, 2014

Four malnourished Hawaiian monk seals from remote atolls northwest of Hawaii's main islands arrived Wednesday for emergency care at a new seal hospital in Kailua-Kona.

The National Marine Fisheries Service picked up the seals during a recent research trip to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Officials expect to take the seals back to the northwestern islands after the animals have fattened up during a month and a half of feeding.

Two of the seals are recently weaned pups weighing only about 70 pounds, said Charles Littnan, lead scientist of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. A healthy seal that age would weigh at least 100 pounds and possibly more than 200 pounds.

The seals are the first patients for the recently opened Hawaiian monk seal hospital.

The hospital — named Ke Kai Ola or The Healing Sea — gives scientists working to save the critically endangered species a way to rescue pups and young juveniles that are struggling to feed themselves in the wild.

In the past, when there was no hospital where they could be cared for, researchers had to leave malnourished seals behind. "For the two smaller animals we collected, it would have been a death sentence," Littnan said.

There are only about 1,100 Hawaiian monk seals remaining, and their population declines approximately 3 to 4 percent per year.

One major reason for the decline is the poor survival rate for juvenile monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Only 1 in 5 monk seals lives to its first birthday. That's in part because they struggle to compete with other top predators — sharks and ulua primarily — for food.

"These very small animals don't have the skill set or the muscle or the size to fight off some of these competitors," Littnan said.

They do much better if they live to be 2 or 3 years old, when they are bigger and better able to compete for eels and other food.

The two recently weaned pups — one male and one female — were brought from Pearl and Hermes Reef. The others are juvenile females from Midway and French Frigate Shoals.

The seals are enjoying being in pools after having been on a ship for several days during their journey, said Frances Gulland, senior scientist at the Marine Mammal Center, the nonprofit veterinary hospital operating the hospital.

The hospital will feed the seals previously frozen herring — a high-fat fish good for fattening — and live moi, she said.

kokua line: June Watanabe is on vacation. Her column returns Tuesday.

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