Rare marine mammals are struggling to survive in the face of disease, lack of genetic diversity and impacts from climate and human activities
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Hawaiian monk seals are teetering dangerously on the brink of extinction, and this week, the tiny population (about 1,100 seals) took a hit when three of the critically endangered animals were killed.
Wildlife officials said two of the animals were bludgeoned to death while the third was shot. The death of a fourth seal is als0 being investigated as suspicious.
To help track down the attackers, the Center for Biological Diversity today joined with allies to offer a $30,000 reward for information about the recent killing.
Hawaiian monk seals are among the world’s rarest marine mammals. The population is plummeting due to starvation and other factors, including:
- Entanglement in marine debris
- Human interactions (especially in the MHI) including bycatch in fishing gear, mother-pup disturbance on beaches, and exposure to disease
- Loss of haul-out and pupping beaches due to erosion in NWHI
- Disease outbreaks
- Male aggression towards females
- Low genetic diversity
According to NOAA, Hawaiian monk seals are part of the “true seal” family (Phocidae), one of only two remaining monk seal species. The other is the Mediterranean monk seal, and a third monk seal species, the Caribbean monk seal, is extinct.
Isolated from their closest relative 15 million years ago, Hawaiian monk seals are considered a “living fossil” because of their distinct evolutionary lineage.
Females generally mature at age 5-6 and it is unknown when males mature. Monk seals are promiscuous and mate underwater. Given male-dominated sex ratios at some breeding colonies, group mobbing of “estrus” females is known to occur, sometimes causing serious injury or even death to the female.
Hawaiian monk seals were hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 19th century, and the population has been declining since modern surveying began. The monk seal population is currently declining at 4 percent annually.
Biologists predict this number will dip below 1,000 in the next 3-4 years, placing this species among the world’s most endangered. While the larger Northwest Hawaiian Island population is shrinking, the Big Island population is growing, with a population estimated at more than 100 animals.
“These senseless killings are really disturbing, especially for a species that’s already at the edge of extinction,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans program director at the center. “Hawaii’s beaches and coasts should be a safe haven for wildlife.”
The Humane Society of the United States and officials in Hawaii have set up a tip line for information on the killings — 1-855-DLNR-TIP — and are working with law-enforcement agencies. Three monk seals were killed on Molokai and the fourth was found killed on Kauai. Necropsies on three of the seals confirmed that their deaths were suspicious, and the cause of the fourth seal’s death is still under investigation.
The seal deaths come as more monk seals inhabit the main Hawaiian Islands, where their chance of survival is much greater than in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. That also means they’re in closer proximity to people — some of whom are apparently hostile.
“Hawaiian monk seals were found in these islands even before people, and its saddening to think that we could drive them to extinction,” Sakashita said.
Today’s reward was offered by the Humane Society of the United States, Conservation Council for Hawaii, Center for Biological Diversity, Marine Conservation Institute and an anonymous donor. The Center has been deeply involved in securing Endangered Species Act protections for Hawaiian monk seals, including with our successful 2008 petition, filed with allies, to protect their habitat along Hawaii’s beaches and in its coastal waters.
For more information, visit the center’s Facebook page.