Federal biologists scouring for ways to spare the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal from extinction are embracing a desperate if unorthodox strategy: They want to pluck seal pups from the small, pristine atolls where they’re born and move them closer to Honolulu and other highly populated areas.
Scientists say this counterintuitive step is needed to help save a species that’s declining at a rate of 4 percent annually. But it is already proving to be controversial, and even unpopular among fishermen who don’t want hungry seals eating their bait and accidentally getting caught in their nets and lines.
The National Marine Fisheries Service plans to formally propose the "translocation" of the seals in July. It wants to bring a few recently weaned female pups to the main Hawaiian Islands each year, keep them here until they’re 3 years old and then send them back to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
"We’re desperate," said Jeff Walters, the agency’s Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator. "That’s the bottom line. We’re watching this species just crash right in front of our eyes. This is really one of the few things that we think has a chance of making a difference."
The Hawaiian monk seal population likely totaled about 15,000 at one point, and the animals have lived all along the archipelago. Today the population numbers some 1,100 and could disappear entirely in the next 50 to 100 years. About 900 to 950 live in a marine preserve among dozens of small atolls northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands.
The 1,200-mile-long marine preserve — the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument — would seem like an ideal place for seals to thrive. It has the healthiest and least disturbed coral reefs in U.S. waters. Fishing isn’t allowed, and the only people given permission to enter are generally those doing research, working at the National Wildlife Refuge at Midway, or those performing Hawaiian cultural rites.
Instead, only 1 in 5 pups born in the monument lives to adulthood. In contrast, their cousins born in the main Hawaiian Islands have a greater than 80 percent chance of surviving.
The bulky, gray and white animals eat by shoving their heads under rocks, flipping them over and gobbling octopus, eels or whatever else might be hiding underneath.
They can generally do this undisturbed in the main islands. But in the monument, crowds of ulua (trevally) follow monk seals and steal whatever food the seals find. Mature seals dodge the stalking ulua by diving deep. The pups, though, aren’t strong enough.
"These juvenile seals are just too little and too slow," said Walters. "They just get hammered."
Predatory sharks are compounding their plight.