According to the Chinese Zodiac, 2017 is the year of the Rooster. But for the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands, this year belongs to the Hawaiian monk seal, a NOAA Fisheries Species in the Spotlight.
In commemoration of 10 years since the publication of the revised Recovery Plan for the Hawaiian Monk Seal, NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office are announcing that 2017 is the “Year of the Monk Seal.” This campaign will be comprised of a series of recovery actions, cutting-edge research, and public events targeted at building awareness and momentum for the next 10 years and more of monk seal recovery.
The Year of the Monk Seal is also a celebration of a new, positive population estimate for the species. The most recent annual population assessment shows that the Hawaiian monk seal, bucking past trends, has increased in numbers by 3% annually for the past three years. The population is now estimated to be around 1,400 seals — about 1,100 seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NHWI) and 300 seals in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI).
The population overall has been declining for over six decades and current numbers are only about one-third of historic population levels, but, importantly, the prolonged decline has slowed over the last 10 years, thanks in many ways to recovery efforts. In fact, all of the major seal populations in the NWHI are either stable or growing, and an estimated 30% of the seals alive today are here because they benefited from a lifesaving intervention or are the child or grandchild of a female that benefitted.
Over the last decade, NOAA Fisheries, along with numerous partners, including the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, NOAA Office of National Marine Sanctuaries, U.S. Coast Guard, and others, have engaged in concerted research and recovery efforts to save monk seals, particularly young female seals. These efforts included:
- At least 297 interventions to help mother and pup monk seals survive
- Removing 847,907 kg (848 metric tons) of entangling marine debris by our NOAA Marine Debris team and partners
- Disentangling 57 seals from debris and nets
- Rescuing 15 seals that had become entrapped and were unable to free themselves
- Rehabilitating 17 undernourished seals at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola monk seal hospital (and another 2 prior to the hospital’s opening)
- Responding to 38 seals to help remove hooks in the field and undertaking 16 surgeries to remove hooks that had been ingested
- Implementing a program to vaccinate wild monk seals against the deadly morbillivirus
- Continuing to engage local communities to help build a culture of coexistence with seals and people in the main Hawaiian Islands
Additionally, during Hawaiian monk seal haul outs and pupping events in the MHI, the Marine Mammal Response Network’s team of volunteers worked quickly to set up seal protection zones, monitor the situation and report any issues, and engage the public with information about the species and its endangered status.
Though the new population estimate is encouraging and the species appears to be moving in the right direction, monk seals still face numerous threats and will likely experience ups and downs on the road to full recovery. This year, PIFSC and PIRO are reaffirming their commitment to monk seal conservation with State and Federal partners.
The Year of the Monk Seal will bring a variety of events — including various informal discussions or “talk story” sessions across the MHI, a screening of a monk seal documentary at Waikiki Aquarium, and collaborations with local businesses and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) — to thank public and private partners, engage local communities, raise awareness of the plight of monk seals, and push forward on the next decade of monk seal recovery. Numerous other exciting partnerships and activities will occur throughout the year, and they will be announced as the year progresses.
Happy Year of the Monk Seal!