By Jan TenBruggencate

A Hawaiian monk seal and its pup rest at Miloli‘i, Napali Coast last summer. Photo by Léo Azambuja

The Hawaiian monk seal is showing signs of recovery after decades of collapsing populations.

The charismatic furred animals today regularly haul out on Kaua‘i beaches for safety from predators, to rest and to give birth to their pups.

NOAA researchers estimate today’s seal count across the Hawaiian archipelago at about 1,400, up a couple of hundred from the low of the early 2000s. Three quarters are in the remote islands to the northwest of Kaua‘i, and a quarter are in the main islands.

The seals aren’t out of the woods. They still face problems with predatory sharks that eat young seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and conflicts with humans in the Main Hawaiian Islands.

It’s interesting how different the threats are in the two different habitats.

In the northwestern islands, from Nihoa out to Kure Atoll, there are few people and no fishing pressure. There are sharks at French Frigate Shoals that have learned to feed on baby seals. During periods of low ocean productivity, they can face food shortages. Those islands snag a great deal of marine debris, like nets, tangles of rope and other gear, which can ensnare seals. And there can be conflicts between seals.

In the main islands, the issues can be disease acquired from feral cats and dogs, getting hooked on anglers’ shorecasting gear, caught in lay gill nets, and even harmed by humans and their pets. Dogs have killed newborn seals.

The Main Hawaiian Islands seal population, which grew swiftly after the seals began showing up a few decades ago, now appears to be stable, NOAA says. And the northwestern islands population seems to be climbing after the years of decline.

A Hawaiian monk seal and its pup rest at Miloli‘i, Napali Coast last summer. Photo by Léo Azambuja

In 2017, there were 161 pups born in the northwestern islands and 34 in the Main Hawaiian Islands. The ratio roughly matches the populations in the two parts of the Hawaiian archipelago.

The survival and recovery of these seals is an important global conservation issue. At the start of the last century, there were three species of related monk seals: One in the Mediterranean, one in the Caribbean and the Hawaiian group.

The Caribbean monk seal has been extinct for half a century. There are only a few hundred critically endangered Mediterranean monk seals left, mostly in the waters around Greece and Turkey. They once extended throughout the Med and out to the coasts of southern Europe and northern Africa, and the Atlantic islands.

All the monk seals probably descended from common ancestors, but genetic testing suggests the predecessors of the Caribbean and Hawaiian populations probably came across the Atlantic millions of years ago.

Visitors who seek to view seals should keep their distance, both for the safety of the seals and for the humans. A feisty seal, which can be 7 feet long and weigh 500 pounds, can and will bite humans. And one of the reasons they come ashore is for safety from big sharks.

View them from a distance, and leave them alone.

  • Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.

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