Four Hawaiian monk seals were successfully released last Wednesday on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge after rehabilitation at Ke Kai Ola, The Marine Mammal Center’s hospital and visitor center in Kailua-Kona that is dedicated to the endangered marine mammal.
As an essential business operating during the ongoing pandemic, the center is committed to continuing its core mission work that includes conservation of threatened and endangered species.
“To return four female Hawaiian monk seals back to their ocean home is an incredible success story and a significant boost to an endangered population where the survival of every individual is critical,” said Cara Field, medical director at The Marine Mammal Center. “This success story highlights the importance of our ongoing partnerships to help save this species.”
The seals spent more than 10 months in rehabilitative care for malnutrition and other ailments. During their treatment, the underweight seals greatly improved in overall body condition. Each of the animals experienced remarkable weight gains between 110 and 175 pounds, some more than tripling in overall weight.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration coordinated logistical and operational support for the release on Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial, part of Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, in partnership with the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Center. The U.S. Coast Guard flew the animals directly to Midway Atoll where they were released on the day of transport.
“We are happy to welcome Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge’s four newest residents,” said Stephen Barclay, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge manager. “The protected lands and waters will provide a safe home for these endangered monk seals, alongside the over one million seabirds and other wildlife that rely on the refuge.”
The four patients were rescued last summer by NOAA Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program scientific staff who determined that chances for survival were near zero for these young seals. The Oscar Elton Sette, a NOAA research vessel transporting scientists and supplies to conduct monk seal research and conservation efforts in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, originally shuttled the pups to Honolulu and from there they were transported via a U.S. Coast Guard aircraft to Ke Kai Ola for long-term care.
The U.S. Coast Guard stepped in to return the seals to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands as the safest and fastest mode of transport during the pandemic. This year, with the impacts of COVID-19 on the safety and feasibility of remote field operations, the best option for releasing these four seals was at Midway Atoll.
“NOAA researchers rescued these four female seals as weaned pups in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the fall of 2019,” said Conservation Veterinarian Michelle Barbieri. “They had a near zero chance of survival if left in the wild, but this effort has given them a second chance.”
The two seals rescued from Pearl and Hermes Reef, Hilina‘i and Leimana, both weaned early from their mothers and at a small size that would make winter survival a challenge. The other two seals, Maka Kilo and Ka‘ena, were a little older but still underweight during their rescue from Lisianski Island. Before release, three of the four seals were fitted with temporary satellite tags that will allow scientists to monitor them after their return to the remote atoll. The fourth seal was not fitted with a tag because she was molting. The satellite tag data will be combined with visual monitoring by researchers on Midway as possible.
Since 2014, the center has rehabilitated and released 33 monk seals, most of which have been rescued from the NWHI as part of the partnership with NOAA, built on existing research in the NWHI to identify seals in need, rescue and rehabilitate them, and give them a second chance at life in their ocean home.
An estimated 1,400 monk seals inhabit the main and Northwestern Hawaiian islands, according to NOAA. Approximately 300 of those seals cruise the waters and haul up on beaches in the main Hawaiian Islands, including about a half dozen on the Big Island.
The center advises that the public can play an important role in the conservation of the endangered species by keeping a few marine wildlife viewing tips in mind when visiting local beaches and wildlife preserves by keeping a safe distance from seals, using the zoom function on cameras and reporting sightings.
A good “rule of thumb” to know if you’re too close to a monk seal is to hold up your thumb perpendicular to the animal, and if you can see any of the seal, you are too close.
To report a sighting, call or text The Marine Mammal Center’s Hawaii Island response team at its 24-hour hotline at (808) 987-0765. To report wildlife harassment, call DLNR at (808) 643-DLNR or NOAA Fisheries’ Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964.