On a picture-perfect Sunday in November, in the vacation paradise of Kauai, a killer crept up on a monk seal pup, a 5-month-old female, and bashed her repeatedly over the head. The next day, people gasped in horror. A reward was offered. But the outrage couldn’t obscure a basic truth: this has been happening to Hawaiian monk seals for years.
A study released Thursday by the nonprofit Marine Conservation Institute said the monk seals’ dwindling population of 1,100 could be cut in half over the next 60 years if their decline continues, and claimed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration isn’t putting enough effort into protecting the only species of seals that lives solely in the United States. Because the seals are critically endangered, NOAA is trying to help rebuild their population.
“It’s an endangered species that the U.S. is entirely responsible for,” said Michael Gravitz, director of policy and legislation for the institute. “If it expires on our watch, it’s a sad statement about our ability to manage and conserve it.”
For starters, Gravitz said, the budget allocated for the seals’ protection, $4 million, isn’t getting the job done, and it should be increased to $7 million so that the agency can make the troubled species a priority, improve coordination with state agencies seeking to help seals, educate fisherman about the Hawaiian monk seal’s value to the ecosystem and widely promote the federal recovery program so that more people can get on board.
NOAA’s lead scientist for monk seal research, Charles Littnan, agreed with much of the report, but said it fails to give the agency’s recovery program proper credit. “Over the 30 years since NOAA started working with monk seals, we know that 32 percent of the animals that exist today were saved directly by our recovery effort or are the descendants of an animal that was saved,” Littnan said. “That’s a statement few recovery efforts on the planet can make.”
When NOAA began its work, the monk seal population throughout the Hawaiian islands was declining at a yearly rate of 8 percent. Now the decline is about 3 percent, Littnan said, contradicting the MCI report’s estimate of 4 percent. “They’re using numbers from years ago. We have the most up to date science.”
Hawaiian monk seals have an ancient tie to Hawaii. Scientists believe they originated from seals in the Caribbean, but were stranded after Central America formed into a land bridge some 3 million years ago. Today their critically endangered population has fallen to a group of about 200 living in Kauai and another group of 900 living in a chain of islands in the far northwest in the Pacific Ocean near Midway.
With so few seals left, Gravitz said, a violent act of nature, such as a hurricane, or a wasting disease such as one currently decimating sea stars in the north Pacific, could end them. Overall, the population is decreasing at a rate of 4 percent each year. Gravitz said NOAA’s outpost in Hawaii isn’t requesting enough federal funds to adequately do its job.
Rachel Sprague, NOAA’s monk seal coordinator for the Pacific Island region, said the program can always use more money to fund efforts such as outreach and awareness that help fishermen understand that seals don’t compete for their catch and shouldn’t be killed. “But we’ve had a lot of successes,” she said, “and we have a standing offer to address community groups and talk monk seals.”
Experts at NOAA and MCI, organizations that have worked together in the past, agree that the population decline is odd because of where it’s happening. In Kauai and nearby beaches where seals encounter humans most, it’s growing slightly. But in the remote northwest islands, a nature reserve where fishing is forbidden and humans are rare, their numbers are falling.
Far out in the Pacific, sharks are an issue. Their population has grown since former president George W. Bush declared the area a reserve in 2006, and they somehow learned how to glide to the shore on waves and snap seal pups into their jaws, said William Chandler, a conservation adviser at MCI who authored the report, “Enhancing the Future of the Hawaiian Monk Seal.”
When the area teemed with seals before the 1900s, they could survive a natural plague of big and fast predators. With their diminished numbers, it could be lights out.
Here’s what else is happening in the northwest, 1,000 miles from Kauai. Seal pups are starving. To get food, they swim into the Pacific, dive deep, turn over rocks and try to forage what’s under them. But they’re followed by bigger sharks and fish, and those animals snatch the food before the seals can eat it. Adults can put up a fight, but the pups go hungry and some die.
On the populated mainland, seals have managed to breed faster than anonymous human killers and their fishing nets can claim them. The baby seal killed days after Thanksgiving on a beach in Anahola was the fifth to die since 2011, according to local news reports. She was the progeny of a seal named Rocky, and both were victims of a dog attack in July in which a second pup was killed.
A $5,000 reward offer hasn’t led to the capture of whoever committed the November attack.
The demise of Hawaiian monk seals is a familiar story of hunting and whaling. “They became a remnant population in the Hawaiian islands, and now they’re shrinking still,” Chandler said. A similar group of seals — Mediterranean monk seals in Greece, Turkey, Libya and Tunisia — are in even deeper trouble, with only 500 left.
“That’s why we’re so concerned that we take care of the ones in the U.S.,” Chandler said. “We think the seal can recover if NOAA and its partners just double down.”
“This is no time to let down our guard,” Littnan said of NOAA. “Can we do more? Of course. And we will.”