Hawaii's endangered seal species
The elusive Hawaiian monk seal is one of the two endemic mammal species in Hawaii and very endangered.
Monday, March 14, 2011 - 19:29
MONK SEAL: Sometimes when resting on the beach the seals appear to be dead, but they are most likely just sleeping as they do most of their hunting at night. (Photo: Sophie Gaze)
The Hawaiian monk seal, Hawaii's local seal population, lives the essence of an island lifestyle: relaxing on the beautiful beaches during the day and eating fresh seafood at night.
"Ilio-holo-ika-uaua" is Hawaiian for "the dog that runs in the rough seas" and the name ancient Hawaiians gave to these tropical seals. They later were deemed "monk seals" for their solitary habits, bald heads and the fold of skin on the back of their neck that resembles a monk's cowl.
The monk seals in the islands are endemic to Hawaii, which means they are found nowhere else in the world, and the most endangered endemic marine mammal in the United States. The only two other known populations of monk seals are the Caribbean monk seal and the Mediterranean monk seal. The Caribbean monk seal is believed to be extinct and the Mediterranean monk seal's population is less than 1000. Here in Hawaii, the monk seal populations range from about 1,200 to 1,500 individuals.
The Hawaiian monk seals are very sensitive to human intervention and usually seek solitude in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Occasionally, they can be spotted on the Main Hawaiian Islands either in the water or resting on the beach. There are several regulations protecting the seals including the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. They also have international protection as a result of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of the Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Hawaii state law also regulate the preservation of the species.
Why place so much protection on this population?
Hawaiian monk seals are sometimes referred to as "living fossils." Their body structure resembles seals that lived millions of years ago and shows that they have remained unchanged for a significantly long time. The Hawaiian monk seal lives, on average, up to 25 to 30 years. They can grow as long as seven and a half feet and weigh as much as 600 pounds. Monk seals feed mostly at night on reef fish, eels, octopus and lobster and seek secluded locations along the coast to sleep during the day.
The Hawaiian monk seals still face many threats despite activists' efforts to protect them. Throughout history human influence has been a huge factor. In the past, the Hawaiian monk seal was hunted for the pelts and fat to make oil, reducing the populations considerably. During WWII, military activity around the islands disrupted the habitats and also threatened the population. Today, commercial fishing and long lining have caused the seals to be caught accidentally as bycatch. The practice of overfishing in the seal's habitats has also lowered the amount of available food for the seals, another factor in the population's struggle for survival.
In addition to human threats, the seals also have natural complications to face. Sharks around the islands are a top predator of the seals. The Hawaiian monk seal is also a victim to mobbing, when male seals become overly aggressive during mating season. Invasive disease and biotoxins in the oceans are another cause of death.
Being endemic to the Hawaiian Islands, the seals that have lived here long before humans are not adapted to defend themselves against so many threats. Therefore, it is important that human populations get involved to maintain the protection of this species.
How to help
In order to guard the Hawaiian monk seal from further human influence a set of guidelines has been established. If a monk seal is spotted, people are advised not to approach it, on land or in the sea, as this can be considered a form of harassment. However, some may be lucky enough to have the seals approach them out of inquisitiveness. It is usually recommended to remain at a distance of 100 feet and always avoid monk seals with pups, never getting between the mother and her pup. Sightings can be reported to the Hawaiian Monk Seal Sightings Hotline (808) 220-7802.
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