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Tsunami had limited effect on endangered monk seals

    Scientists say the March tsunami did not adversely affect the monk seal population on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as much as feared. Here, a seal pup caught in marine debris gets help.
    COURTESY NOAA Derelict marine debris collected by the NOAA vessel Oscar Elton Sette in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument is unloaded at Ford Island.

The endangered Hawaiian monk seal population in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands does not appear to have been severely affected by March’s tsunami from Japan, according to an initial assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"They probably fared fairly well from the tsunami," said Charles Littnan, chief scientist for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. "We don’t believe there was a high seal mortality."

All seven monk seal pups on several islands at Kure and Midway atolls and Lisianski Islands survived the tsunami, and there were no signs of any dead seals, although several had injuries perhaps linked to the tsunami, he said.

Scientists held a news conference yesterday at the research vessel Oscar Elton Sette, which returned to Honolulu on Friday after spending about 25 days at Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The initial assessment was good news to environmentalists who learned last month that thousands of Laysan albatrosses and black-footed albatrosses on Midway Atoll, Spit Island, Eastern Island and Sand Island died in the tsunami.

Littnan said scientists on this trip found Laysan finches at Pearl and Hermes atolls had survived.

Scientists said the juvenile survival rate for the Hawaiian monk seal is poor, with fewer than 1 in 5 pups surviving to adulthood.

In addition to deploying people and equipment, field crews and personnel from the Oscar Elton Sette removed about 16 tons of debris, including fishing nets.

Littnan said several NOAA scientists were at various islands and atolls when the earthquake in Japan sent the tsunami across the Pacific.

Luckily, the tsunami struck when the tide was not high and failed to reach areas where the scientists took refuge.

"They were very lucky. … Mother Nature and fate played a hand," he said.

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