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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, June 17, 2004

Veterinarians remove fishhook from seal

By Carrie Ching
Advertiser Staff Writer

A team of three veterinarians surgically removed a 5-inch fishhook from the esophagus of a Hawaiian monk seal yesterday in a lab at Marine Corps Base Hawai'i. The male seal, identified by his ID number TT40, received more than 200 stitches during the operation, said Dr. Bob Braun, head veterinarian.

This fishhook that was surgically removed from the seal yesterday.

NOAA Fisheries

"It was a life-threatening situation," Braun said. The seal, under 24-hour watch at the Kane'ohe base, is expected to recover in about two weeks.

"If the incision has healed, there's no infection, and he is able to eat on his own, then he'll be released," Braun said. Officials of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have not decided where the seal will be returned to the wild.

At least three monk seals have been injured by fishhooks in Hawaiian waters this month, said NOAA Fisheries officials. The Hawaiian monk seal is an endangered species and it is estimated there only 1,300 of them.

On Tuesday morning the vets tried to remove the hook by using an endoscope, a flexible tube with a tiny camera, but the hook was too large and too deep. Yesterday's operation was the first of its kind on a seal in at least 15 years, Braun said.

The 5 1/2-hour procedure started at 8:30 a.m. yesterday. After anesthetizing the 500-pound monk seal, the vets made a 12-inch incision "right in the middle of his tummy," Braun said. They cut through several layers of skin, blubber and muscle, then opened up his stomach, where they found a shiny 5-inch fishhook with 4 feet of line still attached to it.

Marine Mammal Hot line

Report injured marine mammals to the NOAA Fisheries 24-hour hot line: (888) 256-9840.

"Getting in was easier than we thought," Braun said. "The difficult part was the extended anesthesia and closing up all the layers."

Dr. Marty Haulena, a seal specialist flown in from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., explained that anesthetizing marine mammals is unusually complicated because they tend to stop breathing and lower their body temperature — natural responses used under water.

After the surgery, the seal slept in a dry cage at the marine mammal lab at the Marine base. When he's able, the seal will be moved to the Kewalo Research Facility of the National Marine Fisheries Service, Braun said.

"We'll introduce him back into the water in about 24 hours to allow the tissue to start healing," Haulena said.

The vets plan to offer him a small amount of food tomorrow — some very digestible fish. "Probably smelt," Braun said.

Both Braun and Haulena applauded the cooperation of all the agencies who came to the aid of the injured seal — from the U.S. Coast Guard and Marine Corps to NOAA Fisheries, local veterinarians and Castle Hospital — which rushed suture material to Kane'ohe when the vets ran out halfway through the surgery.

The lesson to be learned, said Braun, a fishing and diving enthusiast himself, is that fishermen need to be very aware of what's around them.

"Most fishermen are good stewards of the shore," Braun said. "So when we see a seal. it would be beneficial to reel in, let the seal go away. If a seal is actually hooked, clip the line close to the seal and notify NOAA Fisheries."

Reach Carrie Ching at 525-8054 or cching@honoluluadvertiser.com.