Building a National Constituency for America’s Most Endangered Marine Mammal

from Wildlife Promise

Considered the most endangered marine mammal found only in U.S. waters and one of the rarest marine mammals in the world, the Hawaiian monk seal needs citizens from across the nation speaking up on its behalf if it is going to survive. Much like the polar bear, the Sandhill crane and the sage grouse, the Hawaiian monk seal is an iconic national wildlife treasure and a part of our natural heritage. Actions must be taken now to prevent its extinction. Because the Hawaiian monk seal lives solely in American waters, the task of preventing its extinction is ours and ours alone.

Hawaiian monk seal in its native habitat. Photo: NOAA

Known for generations as ‘ilioholoikauaua, or “dog that runs the rough sea,” the Hawaiian monk seal is one of only three monk seals species found in the world. The Caribbean monk seal was last seen in 1952 and declared extinct in 2008, and the Mediterranean monk seal hangs by a thread with a wild population of just 600. The Hawaiian monk seal, with a population of just 1,100 and dropping precipitously at 4% a year,now faces numerous challenges to its continued survival.

Pup Births Fall to Record Lows

The monk seal successfully survived in the Hawaiian Islands for millions of years until it was hunted to near extinction in the 1800s. Today, monk seals are at risk from entanglement in fishing gear and other marine debris, overfishing, invasive species, sea level rise and ocean acidification. But recovery efforts face strong opposition from fishermen who fear the seals’ competition for fish, and others who see any federal protections as intrusion. Adding to these threats, vocal resistance to critical habitat and recovery actions for the seal has taken an increasingly ominous turn. In late 2011 and earlier this year, four monk seals died of suspicious head injuries and a fifth is being investigated. More are suspected of having been killed offshore. New reports from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provide further concern. According to Charles Littnan, lead scientist for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program at NOAA, monk seal births in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) are at an all-time low. Just 105 pups were born in the NWHI this year; the lowest number since records began to be kept 30 years ago.

Recovery Funding Key to Preventing Extinction

The Hawaiian Monk Seal Recovery Plan, released in 2007, identified funding needs totaling $36 million over 5 years, or approximately $7 million per year in order to successfully recover and protect the seal. Though essential to the survival of the seal, these figures have never been fully realized. The Recovery Program has lost 36% of its funding from 2010 ($5.5 million to $3.5 million) and proposed cuts for 2013 threaten to further eliminate key parts of research and recovery efforts that could literally mean life or death to the endangered monk seal.

Data from NOAA show that less than 200 seals live near the main Hawaiian Islands of O‘ahu, Maui Hawai‘i, Kaua‘i, Moloka‘i, Lana‘i, Kaho‘olawe, and Ni‘ihau. Here, the majority of pups born annually survive just fine.  But out in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where the vast majority of monk seals reside, fewer than one in five pups ever reach adulthood. Starvation and Galapagos sharks, which come into the shallow waters to prey on seal pups, take a huge annual toll.

Raising the survival rates of female pups to breeding age is key to the species’ survival. But doing so depends entirely on securing critical funding. Part of the recovery plan calls for temporarily moving small numbers of female pups from the NWHI to the main islands for up to three years to support greater survivability. Funding cuts threaten these translocation efforts as well as other important components of the recovery plan. According to the NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, the survival of the Hawaiian monk seal will depend largely on the stability of this recovery funding over the next several years, making the next 5 to 10 years crucial to the survival of the seal.

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Make your voice heard: Speak Up for the Hawaiian Monk Seal

Right now, Congress is hearing mainly from those who oppose the actions that are needed to save our Hawaiian monk seals. Please take a moment to add your voice to those of us across the nation calling for protection of the Hawaiian monk seal by contacting your members of congress. Take action here to urge your members of Congress to support and fully fund recovery actions that will prevent Hawaiian monks seal from going extinct.