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Marine institute fears for survival of monk seal

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An environmental group Thursday recommended that the federal government spend more to help prevent critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals from becoming extinct.

The Marine Conservation Institute said in a report Thursday that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration should also hire a community liaison. This person would build trust with fishermen, some of whom believe the seals are competing with them for fish. The liaison would also work with community members frustrated over being left out of decisions involving the management of natural resources.

The world’s population of Hawaiian monk seals is less than 1,100, and their numbers are declining 4 percent per year. Only 1 in 5 seals born in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands — where about 900 of the animals live — survives until its first birthday.

In contrast, the population of seals born in the heavily populated main Hawaiian Islands has been growing about 5 percent annually. But these seals have also encountered hostility from people who mistakenly believe they are an introduced species not native to Hawaii or that they are taking away food from fishermen. Several seals have been deliberately killed on Kauai and Molo­kai in recent years.

Only 450 to 550 monk seals will remain overall in less than 20 years if the current trend continues, the group estimates.

"If NOAA wants to reverse the long decline of this iconic species, it is going to have to be more aggressive," Lance Morgan, president of the Seattle-based environmental advocacy group, said in a statement.

NOAA spends about $4 million on monk seals each year. The group recommends that NOAA ask Congress for $5 million and gradually request more until it gets $7 million in fiscal year 2017.

Bill Chandler, the group’s conservation adviser, said the report’s release is timed for budget season in Washington. "We wanted to weigh in as far as what appropriations the program is going to need from Congress," Chandler said.

Rachel Sprague, NOAA’s Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator, said the recommendations are things that most people who work on monk seal recovery agree need to be the focus.

She said the agency has had community and cultural liaisons in the past but has none now for lack of resources.

The state of Hawaii, however, she said, is hiring to fill three outreach positions on Kauai, Maui and the Big Island. These positions are funded by NOAA grants to help states support the recovery of endangered species, she said.

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