Known to the native Hawaiians as ʻIlio-holo-i-ka-uaua, or “dog that runs in rough water”, the Hawaiian monk seal is close to the edge of extinction. Not because of hunting, as one might expect, but because of man’s inability to be more vigilant about his interpretation of garbage disposal. The lackadaisical fishing industry is causing horrendous damage to the colonies of the monk seal, and other species, by this lack of due care.
Hawaiian monk seals are the second most endangered pinnipeds in the world after Mediterranean monk seals. They are the only two remaining monk seal species. The species was isolated from its closest relatives over fifteen million years ago. Such evolutionary lineage has led to it now being considered a “living fossil”.
Both male and female have grey backs with lighter undersides; newborns are always black. Although, often red and green tinged fur can be seen. This is caused by clinging algae . The backs, especially in males, may darken with age. Their bodies are perfectly adapted to life in the water. They are beautifully streamlined and come equipped with flipper-like limbs for movability. The front flippers have five digits and are slightly smaller than the back ones. These are used for steering. The back flippers are the main instruments of propulsion. Males of the species can weigh in at up to six hundred pounds, with females weighing slightly less, and they can grow up to length of seven and a half feet. They can also live up to thirty years of age, but this is uncommon.
Whereas seals, in general, favour cold waters, Hawaiian monk seals (like Mediterranean monk seals) inhabit a much warmer environment. They cope with this by remaining inactive during the heat of the day and selecting shady rest spots to occupy, preferably in wet sand.
Regrettably, this friendly and playful species has not learned to fear man and can be easily approached, and therefore disturbed. Lack of flight response may well have been their downfall in past times. They were hunted mercilessly during the nineteenth century. No doubt, when confronted by hunters, they would not have tried to flee. They would, presumably, have been totally unaware of the danger.
They are generally solitary creatures, with only mothers and pups making regular physical contact. At sea they feed and mate, and on land they ‘haul-out’ to breed, rear their young, moult and rest. They seem to prefer sandy beaches offering shallow protected waters. Unfortunately, this exposes them further to human contact.
Monk seals are promiscuous and mate underwater. The unusually long breeding season occurs between December and mid-August. Gestation lasts up to one year. Following this, one pup will be born, weighing approximately thirty-five pounds and reaching almost three feet in length. The pup will nurse for up to forty days, during which time it will receive short swimming lessons from its mother. Infant pups are not able to swim when born and need to stay on dry land until they build their skills and strength for the rigours of the ocean. Whilst nursing, the mother will not eat, living off her reserves, and can lose up to two hundred pounds in weight. When weaned, the mother will simply abandon the pup and return to the ocean to hunt.
Warm subtropical waters, waters surrounding atolls, sandy island beaches, reefs, shallow lagoons and submerged banks.
Throughout the Hawaiian Island chain.
What they eat
Hawaiian monk seals are primarily benthic foragers, feasting on variety of fish (including eels and flatfish) , celaphods (such as squid and octopus) and several types of crustaceans (crabs, shrimp, and lobster).
In the Northwestern Islands; food limitation, marine debris (discarded net and line fragments) and sharks (tiger and Galapagos) – the young are especially vulnerable to these natural predators.
On the main island; recreational fishing hooks and gillnets, disease transmitted by domestic pets and livestock, human disturbance of mother and pups on beaches. Erosion of beaches for haul-out and pupping.
Another problem which may effect the recovery of the Hawaiian monk seal is that of ‘mobbing’ by mature males (aggressive ganging together of males attempting to mate with both mature and immature females). This behaviour has accounted for a significant number of injuries and deaths in young seals.
Status: Critically Endangered
The Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered. The species is also protected under Appendix I of CITES. Current population figures are thought to be one thousand individuals, with an estimated decline of 4% per year. Various conservation efforts are in place, including those of the NOAA Fisheries and partners who have implemented their own recovery plan for the Hawaiian monk seal. The Captive Care and Release Research Project of the NOAA aims to aid the recovery of the species. Public education campaigns are active in raising awareness about conserving the species and habitat. Groups are continuing to help rescue and rehabilitate animals, and direct efforts have been made to disentangle seals from nets and clean up haul-out sites. As a result of these endeavours, a truly shocking 492 metric tons of marine debris has been removed in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands since 1996. Injuries and deaths, from digestion of debris and entanglement in nets, have been dramatically reduced. Various restrictions, aiding the monk seal, now apply to the fishing of lobster and shrimp in the Hawaiian Islands. The Western Pacific Council (WPC) does enforce these restrictions. And yet more good news, The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, CA, has opened a $3.2 million dollar hospital and rehabilitation centre for the seals, .
“Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans”