Happy Year of the Monk Seal!

underwater-monk-sealAccording 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!

2016 Year End Review

2016 Total Numbers for Kauai Marine Mammal Response Network

We tallied the efforts of our 70+ member volunteer network over the past year and are excited to share the numbers with all of you. The gradual increase in seal sightings and numbers clearly show that monk seals are doing well in the Main Hawaiian Islands. We want to emphasize that it is the efforts of our volunteers that make this possible!

  •   Grand sightings total: 3,236 (8.9/day) monk seal sightings on Kauai in 2016 (3,321 in 2015 or 9.1 seals/day)!
  •   Kauai population: 56 unique individual seals sighted in 2016 (53 in 2015).
  •   Births: 3 seal pups born on Kauai, all females. One female (RK14) was observed with pup on Ni’ihau. RW06 miscarried early term again, as she did last year at Poipu.
  •   Ni’ihau Seals: sighted 6 new seals in 2016 likely from Ni’ihau (down from 14 in 2015). The Kauai team flipper tagged one of these new juveniles (R7GM).
  •  Bleach marking effort: 26 bleach marks were applied

    Stranding Responses in 2016:

    8 monk seal stranding responses:

  •   RW06 – aborted fetus at Poipu. Infection of RW06’s uterus the likely cause.
  •   RG13 – juvenile female found dead in a Kapaa canal.
  •   NG00 – removed circle hook from lip on beach.
  •   RF28 – captured and transported to Oahu for surgical removal of hook.
  •   RF30 – captured and transported to Oahu for surgical removal of hook.
  •   R8HY – removed circle hook from cheek on beach.
  •   R7GM – removed circle hook from cheek on beach, and flipper tagged.
  •   RH92 – treated seal with antibiotics after dog-attack injuries.
  •   Temp322 – ingested circle hook based on pigtail leader and corkscrew swivel coming from mouth. Unable to capture seal. Later sighted without line/hook.

    3 Cetacean responses:

  •   1 spinner dolphin carcass retrieved and shipped to Dr. West.
  •   1 pilot whale carcass field necropsied with Dr. West.
  •   1 large whale carcass was reported and tracked as it floated nearshore PMRF until drifting away at sea. Likely a humpback whale carcass.

Field Report: October

Logged seal sightings:
October: 208
September: 222
August: 230
July: 414
June: 356
May: 263

Updates on Pups.


Photo credit: G. Langley

Weaned female pups RH80 and RH92 continue to explore more widely and then return to their natal beach. As you may have read last month, RH92 was bitten by a loose dog on the beach, but fortunately her wounds were minor and she quickly healed. The same dog was observed unleashed and went after RH92 again, however did not make contact with the seal. DOCARE was notified and will follow up. Another dog was found running at-large without its owner and was transferred to the Kauai Humane Society (KHS). Hawaii state laws forbid dogs being off leash, including service dogs. A dog off leash is a danger to itself and a seal, due to bite wounds and spread of disease. We continue to track and monitor these vulnerable, naive weaned seals as much as possible.

Other Seal Events.

  • R339 and RG22 both molted. To learn more about molting in monk seals, click here.
  • RK28, observed with large mobbing wounds and abscesses on her back, continues to heal. For more information about male aggression in monk seals, click here.
  • RG22 was bleach marked V22. To learn more about why and how we bleach mark monk seals, click here.

NOAA Fisheries “Species in the Spotlight: Hawaiian Monk Seals.”
The latest Spotlight on Monk Seals update was released from NOAA Fisheries and is available here.

Voices of our Youth to Save Hawaiian Monk Seals.

Malama Learning Center has completed a year-long project developed through work with Wai’anae Searider Productions on protecting the Hawaiian Monk Seal. They focused on using voices of our youth to get key messages out about ways we can respect and be better neighbors with our native Hawaiian monk seal. The youth are featured because they speak from their hearts and they can perhaps be the best messengers to reach their peers as well as adults.


The campaign is called: Seal ‘n’ Danger. Mahalo to Kapolei High School students for creating that clever name. You can access all elements of the project on the

new website. The website contains facts and important information on ways people can help. It also houses five new videos featuring students from O’ahu and Moloka’i, as well as scientists and resource managers. And it is beautifully illustrated with artwork courtesy of local wildlife artist, Patrick Ching.

Field Report: September

Logged seal sightings:
September: 222
August: 230
July: 414
June: 356
May: 263

Pup Update:

Photo credit: M. Miyashiro.

On September 21, some fishermen contacted DOCARE (Hawaii state Dept. of Conservation and Resources Enforcement), because a loose dog had attacked a small monk seal. An officer immediately responded, found the dog’s owner, and issued a citation. Our Kauai Hawaiian Monk Seal Conservation Hui team found the seal, one of this year’s weaners, with multiple puncture wounds. The following day RH92 was given antibiotics and, thankfully, resights of her show the small punctures did not become infected and have healed.

Vaccinating Seals:
Since June, Hawaiian monk seal coordinators have been vaccinating Kauai seals against morbillivirus, a disease that causes measles in humans and distemper in dogs. To protect our rare Hawaiian monk seals, the first ever vaccination of wild seals has been initiated, as epidemics of this deadly virus have devastated other seal species populations around the world. Our goal was to vaccinate 20 seals on Kauai, focusing only on males and juveniles. Studies have not been conducted on possible side-effects the vaccine may have on a developing fetus, so sexually mature females were excluded. We were successful, with the valuable aid of many volunteers assisting to find seals, to fully vaccinate 19 seals! The program is now on hold as the vaccines have expired and the manufacturer is not currently producing more. We are in discussion with the company and hope to continue vaccination efforts in the near future.

On Oahu, two seals were hooked this month. On Rabbit Island a yearling seal was sedated to remove an external hook from its mouth. The other seal, a large adult male had ingested a hook, so he was captured, and the hook was surgically removed. He is recovering well in captive care. Amazingly, this is the 2nd time this male seal has had a hook surgically removed from his stomach!

In Other Marine Mammals News:

9_28_16_Stranded_FKW_Julie Steelman.0431.JPG

Photo credit: Julie Steelman.

Hawai`i Island : In September, a large male false killer whale (FKW) was found live stranded on the south end of the Big Island. This endangered Hawaiian insular FKW died shortly afterwards and the Hawaii team lead by Tom Elliot organized to pull this very large heavy whale out of the surf and onto the beach to collect the carcass for necropsy.

Oahu: On September 17, a lone melon-headed whale calf was found swimming in Kailua Bay, Oahu. The calf, approximately 5 1/2 feet long, was likely still associated with its mother and from visual assessment showed signs of malnutrition. After careful consideration of all factors related to the case at hand and previous cases, it was determined that any rescue intervention would not be successful. To read the full story click here.

Turtles, Turtles, Turtles:

Poipu turtles.jpg

Photo credit: NOAA

This summer there has been an increase in the numbers of green sea turtles coming to rest on Kauai’s beaches. Visitors and volunteers have reported seeing up to 12 turtles on the Poipu beach, resting at night and departing at dawn. Many of these sea turtles also feed on the seaweed “limu” on the shallow rocks and may come ashore to bask on the beaches during the day. While sea turtles are not our primary concern, we do want to prevent these threatened turtles from being disturbed and to help the life guards to instruct visitors to give turtles respectful space to rest and forage.

Monk Seal Recovery News:
The Toxoplasmosis and At-large Cat Technical Working Group met October 7 to review technical findings on the impacts of toxoplasmosis on wildlife and methods to disseminate accurate information to the public. To learn more about toxoplasmosis, please read this article from Honolulu Magazine and this one from Smithsonian.com.



Field Report: July and August

Logged seal sightings:
August: 230
July: 414
June: 356
May: 263

R8HY Hooked on Oahu and Dehooked on Kauai

R8HY, Gary Langley.png

Photo credit: G. Langley.

On July 15th, R8HY was sighted swimming around Oahu with a large ulua circle hook, Searches were started for the adult male seal, and he was found resting at Moloa’a bay, Kauai on July 18th! Fourteen feet of heavy monofilament line was trailing from the seal and loosely wrapped around his rear flippers. After receiving authorization, most of the trailing line was cut, leaving 1 foot still attached to the hook. Unfortunately, the hook’s tip was not visible, and it was determined veterinary assistance was needed to remove it. On the morning of July 19th, R8HY hauled up at North Larsens beach where a team was able to successfully remove the hook.


RK28 Sighted with Mobbing Wounds

RK28, Cynthia Sterling.png

Photo credit: C. Sterling.

On August 7th, the public reported a wounded seal on the rocks along the coast at Princeville. Volunteer found an adult seal resting on the rocks with a fairly fresh large superficial wound of the skin and blubber layer. The seal had bite and scratch wounds along her back consistent with mating wounds. No intervention at the time was indicated because the wounds were healing well. On August 12th, RK28 was re-sighted at North Larsen’s beach. The wound was healing well, with the skin closing over pink granulation tissue. Three days later, she was seen again at Anini, and the wounds were shrinking and closing well, showing how quickly and remarkably well seals can heal on their own.

Another Hooked Seal


Photo credit: G. Langley.

On August 12th, a volunteer walking the coastline on Kauai’s North Shore spotted a swimming seal with a hook sticking out of its cheek. Then, on August 23rd, it’s believed the same seal hauled out on the South Shore, and a team was able to remove the hook and flipper tag her (R7GM) at the same time. 



Pup Update


Photo credit: G. Langley.

All three pups are weaned, flipper tagged, bleach marked and doing well. To recap: 

  • RK22’s pup was flipper tagged H91/H92 and bleach marked V92.
  • R028’s pup was flipper tagged H80/H81 and bleach marked V80.
  • RK30’s pup was flipper tagged RH38.


RH80,Gary Langley 2.png

RH80 with bleach mark V80 for easy identification in the field. Photo credit: G. Langley.

Vaccination Update
Since June, the Kauai team has been vaccinating Kauai seals against Morbillivirus, a disease that causes measles in humans and distemper in dogs. To protect our rare Hawaiian monk seals, the first ever vaccination of wild seals has been initiated, as epidemics of this deadly virus have devastated other seal species populations around the world. As of now, 19 of 20 seals were booster vaccinated.

(P)update #42

RH92 (formerly known as PK2) has been busy. She now has a bleach mark of V92 that will make identifying her from a distance much easier. She’s also beginning to travel up and down the coast, going several miles one direction and equally far in the other direction. This makes her much harder for our volunteers to find! She’s been observed flipping rocks and checking things out just like a wild seal should. She’s also been observed with sea cucumber slime on her face. Not something that likely will continue as she discovers more deletable tidbits from the sea!


Photo credit: G. Langley


Photo credit: G. Langley


Photo credit: G. Langley


Photo credit: G. Langley


Photo credit: G. Langley


Photo credit: G. Langley


Photo credit: G. Langley

(P)update #41

It’s been a little over two weeks since RH92 was tagged. She has been busy exploring up and down the coastline near where she was born, and she’s been making a few friends, too–there’s Temp325, RN44, RN30, 3CU, RK05, RV18 and even recently de-hooked RF28 sporting a tracking device on his back. We have not witnessed her eat any sea cucumbers, as many weaners inevitably do, but she has tried seaweed. Basically, she’s just being a wild monk seal and doing a good job of it, at that.

Here are a few photos of her escapades.


Photo credit: G. Langley


Photo credit: G. Langley


Photo credit: G. Langley


Photo credit: G. Langley


Photo credit: G. Langley


Photo credit: G. Langley