HONOLULU - Federal biologists scouring for ways to spare the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal from extinction are embracing a desperate if unorthodox strategy: They want to pluck seal pups from the small, pristine island atolls where they're born and move them closer to Honolulu and other highly populated areas.
Scientists say this counterintuitive step is needed to help save a species that's declining at a rate of 4 percent annually. But it is already proving to be controversial, and even unpopular among fishermen who don't want hungry seals eating their bait and accidentally getting caught in their nets and lines.
The National Marine Fisheries Service plans to formally propose the "translocation" of the seals in July, The Associated Press has learned.
A Hawaiian monk seal basks in the late-afternoon sun on the beach in Hau'ula on Oahu’s North Shore.
AP file photo
It wants to bring a few recently weaned female pups to the main Hawaiian Islands each year, keep them here until they're 3 years old, and then send them back to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.
"We're desperate. That's the bottom line. We're watching this species just crash right in front of our eyes. This is really one of the few things that we think has a chance of making a difference," said Jeff Walters, the agency's Hawaiian monk seal recovery coordinator.
The Hawaiian monk seal population at one point likely totaled about 15,000, and the animals have lived all along the archipelago. Today the population numbers some 1,100 and could disappear entirely in the next 50 to 100 years. About 900 to 950 live in a marine preserve among dozens of small atolls northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. The rest are in the main islands where the state's 1.4 million people live and millions of tourists visit every year.
The 1,200-mile-long marine preserve - called the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument - would seem like an ideal place for seals to thrive. It has the healthiest and least disturbed coral reefs in U.S. waters. Fishing isn't allowed, and the only people given permission to enter are generally those doing research, working at the National Wildlife Refuge at Midway, or those performing Hawaiian cultural rites.
Instead, only 1 in 5 pups born in the monument lives to adulthood. In contrast, their cousins born in the main Hawaiian Islands have a greater than 80 percent chance of surviving.
Scientists who study the seals blame the disparity on the large numbers of sharks and ulua fish, or jack, that compete with the monk seals for food in the northwest.
The bulky, gray and white animals eat by shoving their heads under rocks, flipping them over and gobbling octopuses, eels or whatever else may be hiding underneath.
They can generally do this undisturbed in the main islands. But in the monument, crowds of ulua follow monk seals and steal whatever food the seals find. Mature seals dodge the stalking ulua by diving deep. The pups, though, aren't strong enough.
"These juvenile seals are just too little and too slow," said Walters. "They just get hammered."
Predatory sharks are compounding their plight.
A small group of Galagapos sharks at the French Frigate Shoals atoll developed a habit in the 1990s of sliding into extreme shallow water and taking a bite out of seal pups basking along the beach.
Charles Littnan, the lead scientist for the federal government's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, said this behavior has never been observed in any other shark population, and only a few sharks at this particular atoll do it. They tend to tear off a flipper, or rip a chunk out of the seal's side, rather than eating the entire animal. The seals usually die of shock. Only 15 percent of the seals born at the atoll live to adulthood.
Scientists aren't sure why the northwest's seals are struggling so mightily, given that they've lived in the Hawaiian Islands for at least 3 million years.
But the likely reason is that the shark and ulua populations grew artificially large during the 20th century by feeding on scraps from now-closed military outposts and bycatch tossed off the back of lobster boats that once fished in the area.
"Now those sharks and jacks are hungry and there's no more gravy train," Walters said. "Instead of following the lobster boats around, they follow the monk seals around."
Walters hopes the translocation program would allow the species to hold on until the shark and ulua populations in the northwest naturally come down.
The fisheries service has already heard complaints about the proposal, though.
"The seals are already hauling fish traps, breaking them open, getting into people's nets," said Roy Morioka, a retired telecommunications executive and recreational fisherman. "You bring more critters down, the incidences will increase."
Morioka, 67, is worried fishermen will inadvertently injure or kill the seals, and this could lead to restrictions on fishing because of the animal's endangered status.
Neil Kanemoto, 41, predicted the seals would have run-ins with fishermen, as well as surfers, paddlers, and tourists.
"If a monk seal is hooked, accidentally, then now the fishermen are vilified. So we're bad guys just for doing stuff that we've been doing for years and years and years," said the lifelong recreational fisherman.
The fisheries service says it would move just a few seals a year and it would halt the program if it isn't working. Officials also vow to work on conditioning the seals to avoid boats and people.
"Many of the factors that have brought them to this point are linked back to us. So it's our responsibility, where we can, to fix what we've caused," Littnan said.