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Archive for April, 2020

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.

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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.

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Field Report: March 2020

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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Sadly, on April 1, 2020, after a 10-week-long battle with toxoplasmosis, a deadly parasitic disease, the adult female seal RO28 passed away.

Also known as “Pōhaku,” RO28 was 14 years old, in the midst of her prime reproductive years, when she died. She was born on Kauai’s north shore in 2006 to RK06. (RK06 was tragically shot to death while she was carrying a full-term pup. The pup did not survive the shooting.)

Over the years, RO28 has made her fair share of appearances on these virtual pages. Throughout her life, she gave birth to seven pups, the first six of which she pupped and raised until weaning along the same stretch of coastline on Kauai’s north shore where she was born. (It’s not uncommon for females to pup near their own birth site.) However, RO28 spent her recent years on the island of Oahu, only returning to Kauai to give birth.

Here’s a recap of what we know about RO28’s life:

  • In her early adolescent years, RO28 spent much of her time hauling out on rocks along the Poipu coastline.
  • On Good Friday in 2010, she was successfully de-hooked.
  • She was first sighted on Oahu at Kaena Point during the 2010 Semi-Annual Hawaiian Monk Seal Count. She was re-sighted twice shortly thereafter, once with a fresh cookie cutter shark bite on her back.
  • In 2013, RO28 gave birth to RN30 who has traveled to Oahu and has been regularly sighted on Kauai’s north shore.
  • In 2014, RO28 gave birth to RF28 who has ventured to Niihau and is also commonly reported along the Poipu coastline.
  • In 2015, RO28 gave birth to RG28 who often hauls out on Kauai’s South Shore. This birth was miraculously captured on video by one of our volunteers.
  • In 2016, RO28 gave birth to RH80 who regularly circumnavigates Kauai.
  • In 2017, RO28 gave birth to RJ28 who can be found on beaches on Kauai’s north shore and east side.
  • In 2018, RO28 gave birth to RKA4 who was last sighted at Kipu Kai.

In 2018, RO28 and two other mothers pupped near each other, resulting in multiple pup-switching incidents. This occurs in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where more females are pupping on fewer suitable habitat. RO28 was successfully reunited with RKA4; however, one of the other moms, RH58, also known as “Rocky” eventually showed aggressive behavior toward her pup, and he was rescued by NOAA and successfully raised and eventually released back to the wild.

RO28 pupped on Oahu last year and weaned her pup. Unfortunately, the pup tragically died some time thereafter. NOAA reported, “The circumstances surrounding her death indicate that she did not die of natural causes.”

The loss of RO28 makes thirteen known deaths due to toxoplasmosis.

The first documented monk seal death due to toxoplasmosis occurred in 2001. That number has now risen to at least 13 monk seals, making it a leading threat to the main Hawaiian Islands population. Because seals disappear and die without being discovered, the actual number of deaths caused by toxoplasmosis is likely much higher. Unfortunately, the data indicates more females die than males, presenting another challenge to recovery of the species. According to NOAA Fisheres, “Every lost female means that her future pups, and their future pups, are lost to the world.”

What’s unique about RO28’s case is she was only the third monk seal with toxoplasmosis to be rescued alive. While the other two passed away within 48 hours, veterinarians and care-givers were able to work with RO28 for 10 weeks. During that time, she showed improvement at times, providing science with invaluable information that will, hopefully, one day allow for successful medical care for toxo-infected monk seals.

The parasite Toxoplasma gondii is a microscopic, single-cell organism. Just one of their eggs—known as oocysts— is enough to kill a monk seal. A single cat can excrete 145 billion eggs per year in its feces, according to DLNR. It’s a staggering number.

According to this NOAA report, “The parasite that causes ‘toxo’ sexually reproduces in cats, which shed T. gondii eggs into the environment via their feces. The feces of just one cat contains millions of T. gondii eggs that survive in the environment for many months.

“Any warm-blooded animal, including humans, can contract toxoplasmosis by ingesting a single T. gondii egg — and cats are essential for the reproduction and spread of the parasite.”

The loss of RO28 is yet another reason to keep cats indoors to protect cats and Hawaii’s native wildlife. Please.

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