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NOAA: Hawaiian monk seal population remained steady at just above 1,400 in 2019

  • COURTESY OF NOAA FISHERIES
                                Field researchers surveying seals at French Frigate Shoals. Photo courtesy NOAA Fisheries.

    COURTESY OF NOAA FISHERIES

    Field researchers surveying seals at French Frigate Shoals. Photo courtesy NOAA Fisheries.

  • COURTESY OF NOAA FISHERIES / 2019
                                Pups interacting at Pearl and Hermes Reef.

    COURTESY OF NOAA FISHERIES / 2019

    Pups interacting at Pearl and Hermes Reef.

  • COURTESY OF BARBARA BILLAND
                                A Hawaiian monk seal basks on a beach on Oahu.

    COURTESY OF BARBARA BILLAND

    A Hawaiian monk seal basks on a beach on Oahu.

Federal officials had good news regarding critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals — the population in Hawaii appears to be holding steady due to recovery efforts.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported this month that the monk seal population in 2019 was about the same as in 2018, with slightly more than 1,400 seals, with approximately 1,100 in the Northwestern Hawaiian isles and 300 in the main Hawaiian isles.

“The 2019 results provide strong evidence that the number of seals in this region has been growing since at least 2013,” said NOAA Fishers. “Despite these positive signs, we must work to mitigate many human-associated threats to the main Hawaiian Islands monk seal population. These include Toxoplasma, fisheries interactions, and intentional killings.”

According to NOAA, a record high of 48 pups was born in the main Hawaiian isles last year, marking a particularly good reproductive year.

Interventions are also paying off.

Just last week, NOAA and The Marine Mammal Center successfully released RA20, one of a handful of seals that spends the majority of their time on Hawaii island, at Ooma Beach Park.

RA20 is an adult female monk seal, and mother to the last two pups born on Hawaii island. She is regularly seen near the Fairmont Orchid, but on Feb. 29 was displaying abnormal behavior that continued for several days.

A team rescued RA20 and brought her to TMMC’s Ke Kai Ola, a monk seal hospital in Kona, where veterinarians determined she had a bacterial infection. Upon further exam, veterinarians also suspected she may have recently lost a pregnancy.

Despite the good news in seal count, the report also found that fewer juvenile monk seals have survived at several of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands sites than in past years. On Oahu’s North Shore, drowning in fishing nets was the most likely cause of death for three juvenile seals in 2019.

Last year, two important seal pupping islets at French Frigate Shoals reappeared after being inundated or washed away by Hurricane Walaka in 2018, but still offer a limited area for seal pupping. Researchers translocated pups from the area to safer havens on higher ground.

In 2019, NOAA worked with partners to mitigate threats to monk seals with the following actions:

>> Disentangled marine debris from 12 seals in the NWHI, and two seals in the main Hawaiian isles.

>> Rescued five seals from entrapment or drowning in the human-made sea wall at Tern Island and French Frigate Shoals.

>> Removed fish hooks from 21 seals in the main Hawaiian Islands.

>> Sent six undersized seals — four from the NWHI, and two from the main isles – to Ke Kai Ola.

>> Translocated 14 pups from areas of high shark predation and nine seals from male seal aggression within atolls in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

>> Vaccinated seals against morbillivirus and treated infections with antibiotics.

>> Reunited moms and pups that had become separated.

Ke Kai Ola in Kona continues to care of Pohaku, or RO28, a female seal recovering from toxoplasmosis, a parasitic disease spread through cat feces, as well as four seal pups rescued from Pearl and Hermes Atoll and Lisisanski Island last year.

Seal sightings and seals in distress can be reported to NOAA’s statewide hotline at 888-256-9840.

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