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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Congress allocates $5.7 million to help save Hawaiian monk seals

By Diana Leone
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Hawaiian monk seals exist only in Hawai'i and their numbers have been declining for 30 years.

Advertiser library photo

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If the animal is resting and no one's around, keep a respectful distance (150 feet) and do not disturb.

If the seal appears injured, has a pup or people are disturbing it, call 888-256-9840. The toll-free number is answered around the clock.

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

NOAA Fisheries field researcher Jessie Lopez checks on two monk seals in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which has seen a decline in seals because of a lack of food, shark attacks and entanglement in fishing nets.

Courtesy NOAA Fisheries Service

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Congress has allocated $5.7 million the largest single-year sum to date for Hawaiian monk seal recovery efforts.

Next to corporate bailouts and economic stimulus plans, the amount pales. But conservation managers say it will make a great difference for the critically endangered animals, whose numbers have dropped below 1,200 in the wild.

"My reaction initially was jubilation," said Charles Littnan, lead scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries' monk seal research program. "Then immediately comes the weight of responsibility making sure that we spend the money efficiently, properly and to maximize impact on the seals."

Hawaiian monk seals exist only in Hawai'i and their numbers have been declining for 30 years. Unless human efforts to help are stepped up, the animals won't make it, experts say.

The budget boost, up from $2 million in 2008, will allow the NOAA Fisheries to fully staff seal monitoring in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands this summer, hire a scientist to coordinate the monk seal recovery program and to expand efforts to help the seals in the main Hawaiian Islands, said Mike Tosatto, NOAA Fisheries deputy regional director.

The federal agency has primary responsibility for endangered marine mammals, but is partnering with other state and federal agencies and nonprofit conservation organizations to turn the tide for the seals, one of only two native Hawaiian mammals. The other is the Hawaiian hoary bat.

If the funding continues at this level, plans are to develop short-term facilities where vulnerable young seals can get some "head start" help and be released into the wild, Littnan said.

"Our congressional delegation worked hard to push these numbers up for the seals," said Keiko Bonk, Hawai'i program director for the Marine Conservation Biology Institute and a longtime proponent of improved funding for seal recovery.

"This unified delegation support has made all the difference. The appropriated funds will not only help save our sacred seal, it will provide jobs in Hawai'i for ocean scientists and students on a project that will last until the species has fully recovered, and enriching our understanding of our oceans and its inhabitants in the process."

One twist to the seal saga in recent years has been an increase in seal numbers in the main Hawaiian Islands to more than 100, while the population continued to decline in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where most of the seals more than 1,000 live.

In the Northwestern Islands, now protected as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, major threats to the seals are lack of food, attacks by sharks and entanglement in fishing nets.

In contrast, seals around the human-populated islands have other problems. The most obvious one is people's tendency to feed or try to interact with seals. Others are the potential for diseases spread by cats and dogs and the dangers of seals swallowing barbed fishing hooks or getting trapped in lay nets.

The seals' recovery is daunting because of the multiple threats against them, Littnan said.


Educating humans to do the right thing by the seals is a crucial issue, as more seals are born in the main Hawaiian Islands, said Alicia Van Atta, a NOAA Fisheries protected species specialist.

"People are only doing the animal a disservice if they try to pet the seal or feed the seal," Van Atta said. "It's one thing when it's a 60-pound friendly pup on the beach. When a 300-pound animal is trying to push you underwater, it's not so fun anymore."

One boisterous female born on the Big Island in 2006 "molested" actor William Shatner while he was vacationing on Lana'i around Christmas, Littnan said.

Shatner wasn't harmed by the grope from RO42 and made light of it on a TV talk show, Littnan said. But the incident convinced wildlife managers to relocate the seal, which had already been moved several times in the main islands, to the Northwestern Islands. They hope she'll acclimate to being around other seals and, when it's time, become a mother.

If people hadn't fed or played with the seal when she was young, she might have lived out her days on the Big Island, Littnan said.

Seals haul out on land for two main reasons: to rest or to care for a pup. In both cases, they need their space.

Naps are over in a matter of hours, but nursing a young pup goes on for six weeks. Protecting the seals from humans and dogs for that period of time involves an army of volunteers and the assistance of state Department of Land and Natural Resources staff.

Two positions at the DLNR target educating the public, especially fishermen, about protecting the seals, DLNR manager Jeff Walters said.

Littnan calls the recovery work "a daunting task, but I think that it's doable."

He points to the northern elephant seal, which was hunted to fewer than 50 pairs but recovered to a population of thousands.

"It's not hopeless."

Reach Diana Leone at dleone@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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