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We are sad to report that the two-year female seal known as RKA6 was found dead this past weekend in a remote location on Kauai. Unfortunately, a necropsy and cause of death determination was not possible due to the seal’s advanced state of decomposition, however there were no obvious signs of illness or injury. Following CDC, NOAA, and state COVID-19  guidelines, the seal was buried on site.

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PC: G. Langley

RKA6 was born on Kauai on June 30, 2018 to the well known mother R028. She was the 4th pup born in 2018, and therefore known as PK4 until flipper tagged KA6 and KA7 after 39 days of nursing. She was also involved in a brief mother-pup switch and spent the day with another female until reunited with her mother.

After weaning she remained near her birth beach for the first 6 months of life. At 4 months old she was observed with a small fishing hook in her mouth, but she was able to throw the hook on her own without intervention. At 9 months old she was hooked again, this time with a large circle hook. The Kauai team successfully removed the hook and she fully recovered.

Sightings of her over the next year became very sparse, only being sighted 5 times total in 2019 and not at all in 2020, however on those few occasions she was in good body condition and looked healthy.

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PC: G. Langley

Where she disappeared to is anyone’s guess, but this is not unusual. For example, a seal on Molokai was presumed dead after disappearing soon after weaning and not re-sighted for several years. Then this year she surprisingly returned to her birth beach and gave birth to her own healthy pup. It’s a good reminder that Hawaiian monk seals are wild animals with unpredictable and mysterious lives.

Updates: The Kauai team logged 117 seal sightings this month. This included 25 individually identified seals.

April: 117
March: 200
February: 264
January: 319
December: 180
November: 223
October: 258
September: 203
August: 324
July: 239
June: 179
May: 262
April: 348

The first pup of the year weaned from RB00 after 45 days of nursing. The female pup is extremely large and thriving, and will be flipper tagged in the future. A bleach mark (V00) was applied in early May.

New:

·       Adult female R313 was found dead on the north shore. During carcass retrieval a fetus and placenta were expelled. Both were frozen for future necropsy. R313 was removed from the beach and buried.

·       Due to COVID-19 stay-at-home measures, we have transitioned to new methods of monitoring seals. This consists of:

o   Weekly surveys conducted by NOAA and DLNR staff.

o   DAR staff conducting weekly island wide Creel Surveys.

o   PMRF staff continuing to send in routine reports and photos.

o   Requesting that people who call the hotline to report seals assist us by sending several photos and setting-up SRA signs or sticks.

Through this combination of techniques, we have been able to monitor and collect health condition photos on most Kauai seals weekly. The beaches were closed to the public so very few reports of people disturbing resting seals were received.

The female monk seal identified as R313 was somewhat elusive. Over the years, she’d be seen for months and weeks and days, gaining weight, looking evidently pregnant; then, she’d disappear for six or eight weeks. Only to reappear looking quite skinny.

It was always assumed R313 was born on Niihau and returned there when it came time to deliver her own pups, a practice that’s not unusual among Hawaiian monk seal moms.

In 2020, R313 was repeating this same pattern. She was reported to the Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui 13 times since the start of the new year, first appearing on January 4th looking freshly molted. She was reported every few days thereafter until March 15th about the time COVID-19 restrictions reduced our volunteer efforts and all but eliminated beach-going activities. None of these reports indicate anything amiss with R313.

It was nearly six weeks later before R313 was next reported to the hotline, and on the afternoon of April 25th, she was confirmed dead at Hā’ena Beach Park. Sadly, she was also pregnant at the time. R313 was estimated to be, at least, 15 years old at the time of her death.

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Here, a resting R313.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, a necropsy was not conducted; however, her fetus and placenta were preserved for sampling and testing at an appropriate time in the future. This might reveal some clues as to the cause of R313’s death. There were no external signs of trauma, but not all trauma is visible. R313’s body was removed from the beach and buried.

R313 was not flipper-tagged but sometimes bleach-tagged as V23. However, she was easily identified by her numerous cookie cutter shark scars on her back and belly along with several line scars.

The most common causes of death in main Hawaiian Islands monk seals include fisheries interactions, trauma, and toxoplasmosis. None of these can be ruled out as the possible cause of R313’s death at this time.

As a regular on Kauai, R313’s presence will be missed along with her contributions to the Hawaiian monk seal population.

We now have a “weaner.” And a very healthy one, at that. Last week, after 45 days of nursing, RB00 weaned her pup, PK1. Last year, RB00 nursed her pup, RL08 for 54 days.

Because we’re still operating under COVID-19 restrictions, PK1 won’t be tagged right away; however, she’ll be easy to identify, since she (yes, a female) is our only Kauai pup for the year thus far.

For the next few months, PK1 will explore her near-shore natal beach, as she figures out how to forage on her own. She’s already been sighted tossing sea cucumbers around, so her innate curiosity is already leading her to what will now be her lifelong refrigerator, the ocean.

Here are a few photos that illustrate her, shall we say, rotund state;-)

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Last week Thursday, the Hawaiian monk seal that many on Kauai first knew as K01 was found dead on a windward Oahu beach. Her cause of death was not apparent. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, she was moved to a location on private property and buried.

Interestingly, K01 was the first Hawaiian monk seal to be identified on Kauai in 2002 when NOAA PIFSC biologists first started inventorying seals in the Main Hawaiian Islands. She was identified as an adult, so assumed to be, at least, five years of age. That would put her somewhere in the neighborhood of 23 years old when she died.

Shortly after K01 was first identified, she was flipper-tagged as 5AY and 5AZ on May 14, 2003. Her official designation was R5AY. There’s some indication that she was also de-hooked at this time, as records indicate she was sedated for the procedure.

R5AY gave birth for the first time in 2005 on Kauai’s north shore. That female pup was flipper-tagged as I37. After that, R5AY pupped on Oahu in 2006 and 2008; however, she returned to Kauai to pup in 2009. That pup, another female, was flipper-tagged as A20. Since then, 5AY has spent most of her life and has pupped at a popular beach on Oahu’s north shore, eventually earning the nickname “Honey Girl” by the community.

In 2013, R5AY had a nasty encounter with a fishhook that nearly left her dead. The hook got stuck in her cheek and, along with a raging infection in her tongue, she couldn’t eat. She grew so emaciated that she was reported dead and floating in the water. She was eventually captured and in a novel surgical procedure, approximately two-thirds of her tongue was removed. Amazingly, she survived and went on to contribute to the Hawaiian monk seal population.

Screen Shot 2020-04-27 at 6.03.00 PMR5AY’s experience with the fish hook and surgery sparked a children’s book that was written about her experience.

It’s no exaggeration to say R5AY was a matriarch of Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands. She will be greatly missed.

Last month, NOAA released a report about population size and trends from 2019. Here are some highlights from that report alongside some Kauai data.

Overall, the overall Hawaiian monk seal population remained steady at slightly more than 1,400 individual seals. While the population size didn’t really change year over year, the population trend reflects an average annual growth rate of 2 percent since 2013.  

  • Approximately 1,100 individuals reside in the Northwestern Hawaii Islands (NWHI) and 300 in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). Of that, 67 individuals were sighted on Kauai in 2019.
  • A record number of MHI pups were born last year. Of the 48 total, six pupped on Kauai.
  • The 2019 MHI results provide strong evidence that the number of seals has been growing since at least 2013. On Kauai, we reported 42+ percent more individual seals in 2019 than we did in 2014. The annual number of new seals cruising over from Niihau each year definitely boosts this number. We reported a minimum of five seals from Niihau in 2019, 12 in 2017, six in 2016, and 14 in 2015.

NOAA has often reported approximately 30 percent of seals are alive today due to direct intervention. In 2019, staff trained by NOAA conducted dozens of such interventions to save the lives of monk seals throughout the Hawaiian Archipelago. Take a look:

  • Fish hooks were removed from 21 seals in the main Hawaiian Islands. Kauai conducted three such interventions.
  • Four NWHI and two MHI undersized seals were rehabilitated at The Marine Mammal Center’s monk seal rehabilitation facility, Ke Kai Ola. Kauai’s RH38 and RH58 were the two MHI seals rehabilitated at Ke Kai Ola.
  • Continued health interventions—such as vaccinating against morbillivirus and treating infections with antibiotics—were conducted. On Kauai, four seal pups and one juvenile were fully vaccinated.
  • Continued pup-saving interventions such as reuniting moms and pups that were separated were conducted. On Kauai, trained NOAA staff assisted one pup by cutting the umbilical cord which remained attached to the placenta. This posed a hazard to the pup near the wave wash which could have pulled the pup out to sea.

The reported threats to monk seal survival varied throughout the geographic distribution of the population. Some points of interest:

  • In the NWHI, juvenile survival and loss of safe pupping habitat represent two areas of concern for species recovery.
  • Additionally, 12 entangled seals were saved from marine debris in the NWHI; two were rescued in the MHI.
  • Five seals were saved from entrapment or drowning in the human-made sea wall at Tern Island within the atoll of French Frigate Shoals.
  • In the MHI, drowning in fishing nets was the most likely cause of death for three juvenile seals on Oahu’s North Shore.
  • The 21 hooked seals in the MHI ranged from Kauai to Hawaii Island where an estimated 150 seals reside. That’s a startling 15 percent of the population getting hooked.

Monthly Update: The Kauai team logged 200 seal sightings this month. This included 37 individually identified seals.

March: 200
February: 264
January: 319
December: 180
November: 223
October: 258
September: 203
August: 324
July: 239
June: 179
May: 262
April: 348

New:

RB00 gave birth to the first Kauai pup of the year, PK1. Due to COVID-19, limited signage and monitoring has been possible, however the pup appears to be thriving. (See photos below.)

Updates:

Five of the six pups born in 2019 have been sighted recently and continue to thrive, the sixth is likely on the remote Na Pali Coast.

Research/Support of Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center:

Sub-sampled scat, molt, and tissue plug samples accordingly.
Logged all seal sightings for PIFSC database. Organized photos and reported sightings, molt tallies, survival factors to send to PIFSC.

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