Education, conservation, key for Hawaiian monk seal

Eleu, a young Hawaiian monk seal pup, had a 1 percent chance of surviving until she was rescued by the Marine Mammal Center on Hawaii island. There are only about 300 monk seals that frequent the main Hawaiian islands. LAUREN VAN HEUKELEM photo

With fewer than 1,400 Hawaiian monk seals left on earth, and an estimated 10 to 15 that frequent Maui, education and conservation efforts for these endangered animals is all the more important.

Hawaii’s monk seals, or at least one monk seal, garnered lots of attention recently when a tourist was seen on social media touching an endangered Hawaiian monk seal on Kauai.

Touching, harassing, capturing, injuring or killing monk seals is considered a class C felony with the penalty of imprisonment or fines.

“These animals are among the most endangered seals on earth,” said Anne Rillero, communications manager for the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council which hosted a virtual presentation last week called “Saving a Species: Rehabilitation as a Conservation Tool for Hawaiian Monk Seals.”

Rillero in a news release about the presentation added that “public education is needed to help protect our Hawaiian monk seals from harassment or injury.”

Human interaction and harassment are some of the top threats for the species, said Lauren Van Heukelem, the response and operations coordinator at the Marine Mammal Center-Ke Ka Ola rehabilitation hospital on Hawaii island.

During the virtual presentation, Van Heukelem added that other top threats include fishery interaction, entanglement in trash and intentional killings.

Also a new threat has been toxoplasmosis, a toxin found in cat feces that is washed into the ocean. This illness is not deadly for humans, but is for Hawaiian monk seals, she said.

Van Heukelem added that researchers estimate that about 30 percent of the species are alive today due to conservation efforts led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and partners such as the Marine Mammal Center.

“Conservation starts with education, and that’s really what we do a lot of, and what each island has programs for,” said Van Heukelem, who oversees the monitoring of the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population. “If you educate the youth, if you educate the public, that’s really going to start the discussion of next steps and what you can do.”

Van Heukelem also runs the center’s 24-hour hotline for reporting seal sightings around the island and coordinates daily outreach and population assessments.

The center’s operations in Hawaii began in 2014, Van Heukelem said.

And since then the Kailua-Kona Marine Mammal Center has rehabilitated and released 36 Hawaiian monk seals, most of which have been rescued from and returned to the Northwestern Hawaiian islands.

“For every seal that we rehabilitate, that seal goes back into the wild and hopefully expands the population — they go on to have pups and so on and so forth,” she said.

There are only about 300 Hawaiian monk seals that frequent the main Hawaiian islands and about 1,100 in Northwestern Hawaiian islands, said Van Heukelem.

On Maui there are also other agencies looking out for the Hawaiian monk seal.

According to Ingrid Beidron of NOAA Fisheries, Pacific Islands Regional Office, there’s a full-time marine mammal response coordinator stationed on Maui that oversees the whole county.

Some key partners for monk seal response, public education and conservation in Maui County also include the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, Maui County Ocean Safety, and Pulama Lanai.

“During the pandemic, NOAA has relied more on partners to support responses for seal haul-outs that don’t involve injured or sick seals,” Beidron said.

The NOAA relies on calls from the public to understand seal habitats, how many there are, and how people and seals might be interacting, Beidron said.

“Responsible viewing” includes viewing from a distance, not disturbing monk seals sleeping on the beach, as well as never touching, chasing or feeding them.

Recommended viewing distance is at least 50 feet away on land and in water, and about 150 feet away from mother seals and their pups.

The Marine Animal Response Hotline is (888) 256-9840. To report a monk seal sighting on Maui, call 292-2372

For more information about the Marine Mammal Center, visit marinemammalcenter.org.

* Dakota Grossman can be reached at dgrossman@mauinews.com.


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