PEARL HARBOR - Last month's tsunami didn't appear to have seriously hurt the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population, the head scientist of the federal government's research program for the species said Monday.
Eight to 10 seals may have been injured when a 9.0-magnitude earthquake struck off Japan on March 11 and triggered massive ocean waves that washed ashore in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
But Charles Littnan, the lead scientist for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, said none of the injuries appears to be life-threatening.
"We did see a few animals that had injuries," said Littnan. "But we think right now the population fared fairly well."
Littnan said the species might have fared worse if the tsunami had hit later in the breeding season. But only seven pups had been born this year at the time the tsunami hit, so few were at risk.
"If it had happened two months later, when we had many more pups on the ground, then it would have been a problem," Littnan said.
Littnan spoke to reporters a few days after scientists returned to Honolulu from the remote island chain aboard the federal research ship the Oscar Elton Sette. They traveled to the islands to count seal pups and study what's affecting monk seal survival.
The species is closely studied in part because it is endangered. There are only 1,100 monk seals remaining in the world, and the population is declining at a rate of about 4 percent per year.
Scientists found one seal pup, which had already been weaned, entangled in old fishing gear at Kure Atoll. The animal was in danger of drowning while tangled in the gear, but scientists were able to free the seal.
Littnan said it wasn't clear if the seal had gotten caught in the debris because of the tsunami. Regular ocean currents carry marine debris from around the Pacific to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Abandoned fishing nets are a particular threat to the seals because the animals can get tangled in them.