Dear EarthTalk

What is the status of Hawaiian monk seals and how will the new national monument designation in the waters around the Hawaiian Islands affect them?

Polly LaBarre

New York, NY

Easily exploited by hunters, whalers and fishermen in the 19th century, Hawaiian monk seals essentially never recovered. As early as 1976, the Hawaiian monk seal was listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The species is also on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN’s) Red List of Threatened Species, and trade in the species or its parts is banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

According to statistics from the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service, beach counts of populations of Hawaiian monk seals declined by some 60 percent between 1958 and 1996. Today only 1,300-1,400 of the animals exist in the wild, and their populations have declined about four percent annually in recent years.

What makes marine biologists and environmentalists so sad to see Hawaiian monk seal populations dwindle is the fact that the charismatic mustachioed creatures are one of the few mammals known to science to have evolved very little from their ancestral beginnings some 15 million years ago. In a sense, the monk seals are living fossils, and provide scientists with a window in days long gone by.

In June 2006, the Bush administration created the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, a 1,200-mile-long, 140,000-square-mile stretch of open ocean northwest of Honolulu. The area is dotted with uninhabited islands and reefs that provide perfect habitat for some 7,000 different species of marine wildlife, a quarter of which, like the monk seal, are found nowhere else on the planet. The establishment of the monument ensures that no development or resource extraction will take place in the area, which is roughly the size of California and is the largest protected marine area in the world. Meanwhile, public access is restricted. And commercial and sport fishing will be phased out there within five years.

The establishment of the new national monument is key to saving the monk seals, as habitat loss is currently their chief threat, given that hunting is no longer allowed. Other threats include incidental capture in fishing gear, ingestion of fisheries debris or toxic substances, a decrease in prey availability — monk seals are carnivores — and even intentional kills, in some cases by misguided fishermen thinking that the seals are competing for their catches. These factors, along with an inherently slow reproductive rate, continue to threaten the remaining Hawaiian monk seal population.

While the protection of critical habitat, such as in Papahanaumokuakea, is an important part of an overall strategy to try to save the charismatic species from extinction, other conservation efforts include learning more about the animals’ reproductive habits, the rehabilitation and release of undersized seal pups that would not otherwise make it in the open ocean without help, captive breeding, the removal of marine debris, and the mitigation of other human disturbances — from loud boat engines to oil spills.

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