A New Danger for the Hawaiian Monk Seal

Hawaiian Monk Seal and Pup Photo by: US Fish and Wildlife Service
After Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962, people rallied against the use of DDT as an insecticide because of the threat it posed to Bald Eagles and other birds. Just like the United States would not be the same without the Bald Eagle, so too would Hawaii change forever if it lost its state mammal, the Hawaiian Monk Seal.

Despite their importance and generally adorable nature the Monk Seals are one of the most endangered species in the world. Their population has continued to decline after nearly being hunted to extinction in the 19th century and their current population is estimated at less than 1,100. Although they are listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) they continue to face new challenges that threaten their continued survival.

The Monk Seal is a charismatic, tropical seal that can only be found in the Hawaiian Islands and are one of only two indigenous mammals. Today they are known as Monk Seals, named for the folds of skin on their heads which resembles a monk’s hood.

Hawaiian Monk Seal photo by: U. S. Fish and WIldlife Service
To the ancient Hawaiians however they were llio holo I ka uaua which means ‘dog that runs in rough water.’ Instead of running they seem to fly through the water, darting easily through the waves before plunging into the depths, leaving only the memory of a silvery-grey back and flippers behind. When they are born they measure a mere 3 feet in length as are around 35 lb. By the time they reach adulthood they weigh in between 375 and 450 lbs and are between 7 and 7.5 feet long.

Like many species the monk seal relies on a specific type of habitat to survive. Like humans, they enjoy sun bathing on the warm, sandy beaches where they can at times be seen lounging in the sun. Most of their time, however, is spent swimming through the warm subtropical waters around atolls, islands and offshore on reefs and submerged banks. Maintaining a safe and healthy habitat is critical for their continued existence.

Recently the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) proposed a revision to the monk seal critical habitat. This new designation would include the established critical habitat in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and aims to include other areas throughout the main Hawaiian Islands. The recommendation is based on substantial scientific information and aims to protect habitat for reproduction, rearing of offspring, foraging, resting and habitat protected from disturbance and also included economic and national security concerns among other things.

Despite their endangered status, there is much debate over the revised critical habitat designation from people such as the former governor of Hawaii Linda Lingle. Her argument stems from the idea that this new designation would negatively impact humans and that we should take a ‘people first’ approach.

Policies do need to take into account the impact on people but something must be done before this unique species is gone forever. We have a duty to ensure their continued survival which means helping to protect their critical habitat areas.

Our affiliate organization, Conservation Council for Hawaii has been working tirelessly to help protect the Monk Seals and other endangered species in Hawaii where Climate Change and other pressures have had a large impact on many native species. You can also hear about Monk Seals from Ranger Rick and learn more about what you can do to help endangered species like the Monk Seal and others in your area.