Hawaiian monk seals and good and bad news

Jeff Walters: The entire population of Hawaiian monk seals is currently 1,100 seals. In terms of the status of the species, it’s basically a good news bad news situation.

Jeff Walters is the Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator for NOAA Fisheries Service. Walters said that in the isolated northwest Hawaiian islands, the number of monk seals is declining by four percent every year. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that a smaller population of seals on the main Hawaiian islands is growing and thriving, he said.

Jeff Walters: Over the past few years, we’ve had twenty or more seals born in the main Hawaiian islands every year.

Even though the main Hawaiian islands have a much larger human population, the seals are doing better there because they don’t have as much competition for food, or as many predators, said Walters. But, he added, when people try to feed or play with the seals, it runs the risk of “taming” them, which hurts the seal’s chances of surviving in the wild.

Jeff Walters: We need to keep the wild seals wild, and not have them become conditioned to interact with humans.

Hawaiian monk seals are among the most ancient species of seal on the planet, and they’ve lived in the reefs surrounding the Hawaiian islands for millions of years. There are about 950 Hawaiian monk seals that live in the atolls of the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, Walters said, and scientists don’t know exactly why these populations are suffering.

Jeff Walters: We are not sure why they are so food-limited, but we do know that there’s heavy competition for forage prey, from other species like jacks and sharks that have a very high abundance in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, compared to other coral reefs. Walters said the Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Plan, which was drafted in 1983 and revised in 2007, is testing strategies to help populations in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands. He said young seals might be manually relocated to areas with less competition for food, or they might receive nutritional supplements that might make them more likely to reach reproductive age.

The strategy for the Main Hawaiian Islands is different, Walters said.

Jeff Walters: In the Main Hawaiian Islands, it’s primarily building better community awareness and support. We have a mixed bag – a large community that supports ocean stewardship and conservation in general, and then unfortunately a small group who are less supportive and who have probably legitimate concerns about monk seals and the impact on their lifestyle.

He said that NOAA Fisheries Service and their partners are working with fishermen who might see the seals as competition for fish to come to an understanding about protecting the seals from hooking and entanglement in fishing gear. Walters added that every island has a Hawaiian Monk Seal Coordinator to respond to hooked seals, as well as seals on beaches.

Jeff Walters: Their job is to take calls from the public about seals that are up on the beach. Maybe they look sick, they look injured, maybe they’re entangled. Maybe they’re fine, but there are tourists who are getting too close Those coordinators work with volunteers who are on call, who go out with educational materials, and rope and stakes to rope off the seals, and work with the beach-goers to let the seals do their thing, and not be disturbed.

Walters said that within the next five years, the species will likely drop below 1,000 seals. But he said that there’s a lag time between the efforts humans are making to recover the populations, and when they actually start to reproduce and grow the population.

Our thanks today to NOAA Pacific Services Center – linking culture, science, and people to build resilient Pacific Island communities.

August 2, 2010

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