Hawaiian Monk Seals rehabilitated in Kona, returned to Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

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Two critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals were recently returned to Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument after being rehabilitated at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital in Kailua-Kona.

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Two critically endangered Hawaiian monk seals were recently returned to Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument after being rehabilitated at The Marine Mammal Center’s Ke Kai Ola Hawaiian Monk Seal Hospital in Kailua-Kona.

The seals, scientifically termed Neomonachus schauinslandi, were rescued last year in an emaciated state, one on Kure Atoll and another on Laysan Island, during NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program’s field camp season, according to a prepared statement released by The Marine Mammal Center about the successful release, which occurred March 25.

The two juvenile females, Pua Ena O Ke Kai (“fiery child of the sea”) and Meleana (“continuous song”), or Pua and Mele for short, were transported last September aboard NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette to the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority-based facility for care.

Once at Ke Kai Ola, staff and volunteers with spent five months nursing the animals from their malnourished state to fat healthy seals. They now have a better chance of surviving their first two years of life and will hopefully grow to have their own pups, the center said.

With the seals healthy, a U.S. Coast Guard HC-130 aircraft crew from Air Station Barbers Point on Oahu picked up the seals in Kona, as well as scientists to provide care, and flew them to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge on March 18. On March 20, they were loaded onto the offshore supply ship Kahana and departed for Kure Atoll State Wildlife Sanctuary, located at the northernmost point in the Hawaiian archipelago, about 1,350 miles northwest of Honolulu. Afterarriving at the atoll, the seals were monitored by biologists from NOAA Fisheries and the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources until their release on March 25.

“The successful rehabilitation and release of these young seals demonstrates the collaboration and innovation that will be necessary to save Hawaiian monk seals from extinction,” said NOAA Fisheries’ Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Coordinator Rachel Sprague. “The dedicated efforts displayed by NOAA, The Marine Mammal Center, U.S. Coast Guard, State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show how it will take every one of us to help protect these extraordinary animals. As a result of our intervention, two young female monk seals are now returning home to a bright future where they can contribute to the recovery of their species.”

Since opening in 2014, Ke Kai Ola staff and volunteers also have rehabilitated four other young seals, which were returned to French Frigate Shoals and Laysan Island within the Monument last September.

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The Hawaiian monk seal is critically endangered, with fewer than 1,100 individuals in the wild, including about 900 in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Fewer than one in five Hawaiian monk seal pups in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands survive their first year due to threats like starvation, entanglement in marine debris, male aggression due to abnormally small population size, and more.

Hawaiian monk seals transported from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to the Kona facility for rehabilitation may only be released back to the NWHI. Release at Kure Atoll is favorable given its recent good survival rates for young seals and opportunities for weekly visual surveys by DLNR staff stationed there. Seal movements will also be tracked via satellite for post-release monitoring.