Federal officials recently announced the release of a 2-year-old Hawaiian monk seal named Ka‘ale back to the wild after removing a large fishing hook from his tongue on Oahu.
Ka‘ale, or RH32, got lucky, according to NOAA Fisheries officials, given that a large, barbed circle hook did not end up further down his digestive tract. If it had, it could have led to a life-threatening infection or required invasive removal techniques.
An NOAA veterinarian and team removed the hook from Ka‘ale at its facility on Ford Island. X-ray images revealed he had three additional small hooks in his stomach.
The team decided to release Ka‘ale, who was healthy and in excellent condition, with the small hooks remaining in his stomach because they are not yet causing health issues serious enough to warrant the risks of surgical removal. Volunteers from Hawaii Marine Animal Response, a non-profit working with NOAA, will monitor Ka‘ale in the wild for changes in his condition.
Meanwhile, NOAA asks recreational anglers to help prevent further human-seal interactions.
Ka‘ale is an example of how this has become a potential problem, given that the young monk seal frequents the jetty area near Kahe Power Plant, and likely received his most recent collection of hooks there, NOAA said. In mid-August, Ka’ale was spotted near the power plant with a fishing line coming out of his mouth shortly before he was hooked.
NOAA said fishery interactions, including hookings and entanglements in nets, are a key threat to Hawaiian monk seals. Between 1976 and 2016, NOAA Fisheries documented 155 monk seal hookings and gill net entanglements, 13 of which were fatal since 1994.
Over the past two years of his life, Ka’ale has been hooked at least six times.
Both Ka’ale and shoreline casters have been attracted to a ball of bait fish called akule (bigeye scad) aggregating along the shoreline in the area. While Ka’ale does forage for food, he has also become used to eating fish straight from the hooks of fishers.
Some have unintentionally worsened the situation by throwing fish and bait to the seal, which encourages Ka‘ale to seek food from humans. NOAA officials said this can lead to a dangerous situation, encouraging a wild monk seal to approach swimmers, spear fishers or snorkelers to play or get food.
If a Hawaiian monk seal shows up, individuals who are fishing are advised to pull in their lines and simply take a break, according to Phil Fernandez, president of the non-profit Hawaii Fishermen’s Alliance for Conservation and Tradition. Oftentimes, the monk seals will leave within 20 to 30 minutes, and then fishing can resume.
Individuals who are fishing can also help by using barbless circle hooks, which are less difficult to remove than barbed hooks.
Hawaiian monk seals are a critically endangered species protected by both state and federal laws. Sightings of hooked seals can be reported to NOAA’s hotline at 888-256-9840.