Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program News and Highlights

  • June 16, 2014
    The NOAA Ship Hiʻialakai sailed from Honolulu on June 16, 2014, for a 26-day mission to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to monitor and study the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population. As part of the research, the scientific team will conduct trial aerial surveys using Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). More...
  • April 28, 2014
    R1KU is a juvenile female monk seal that was first seen on January 23, 2014 on the remote island of Niʻihau. She was called to our attention by the Robinson family because she had suffered a recent traumatic injury to the right eye. More...
  • April 28, 2014
    The 2014 pupping season is underway, with at least seven pups born; four in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI) and three more (excluding 1 aborted fetus) in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). In the MHI, a pup was born on Oʻahu in early January and is now weaned, fat, and healthy. More...
  • April 28, 2014
    To gain insight into the ecology and behavior of seals in the Main Hawaiian Islands (MHI), seals have been instrumented with National Geographic Crittercams (animal borne video cameras) along with a suite of other instruments including GPS tags and three-dimensional inertial motion sensors (OpenTags). The goal is to understand and share images of feeding and underwater behavior, and lay to rest many of the myths and misconceptions regarding monk seals and their impact on the marine environment and its resources. More...
  • April 28, 2014
    In ongoing efforts to increase survival of female seals, six weaned pups were translocated 360 miles from French Frigate Shoals (FFS) to Laysan Island onboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette in September 2013. This was the second consecutive year female weaned pups were directly translocated from FFS to Laysan, where recent yearling survival rates were relatively higher than at FFS. More...
  • April 28, 2014
    Barbara Mayer, a US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) volunteer and also a retired school teacher, organized a program last summer to connect local schools with scientists in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) on board the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. Barbara provided the students background information on the habitat, wildlife and living conditions in the NWHI and also did a hands-on project of sifting monk seal feces (chocolate pudding) to see what monk seals eat. More...
  • October 31, 2013
    In most years, funding levels have enabled PIFSC scientists to conduct comprehensive surveys of the endangered Hawaiian monk seal at the six major breeding sites across the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). However, because of budget cutbacks in 2013, researchers in the Center's Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program have been able to fully survey only three of the NWHI sites this year. More...
  • July 3, 2013
    The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette will sail from Honolulu on July 3, 2013, for a 21-day mission to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to study the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population and to collect oceanographic instruments and oceanographic data. More...
  • June 28, 2013
    Researchers at PIFSC are engaged in studies to monitor populations of endangered Hawaiian monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands and Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The staff of the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program has continued to execute a community-based research project in the main Hawaiian Islands, Hoike a maka, to better understand monk seal diet and foraging behavior. More...
  • May 8, 2013
    The PIFSC Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program has submitted a permit request to continue the Center's efforts to mitigate Galapagos shark predation on monk seals at French Frigate Shoals (FFS) in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. More...
  • April 26, 2013
    news icon
    First Monk Seal Births of the 2013 Season and Midway Atoll Seal Rescue!
    Mom and young pup.
    Mom and young pup.

    It's springtime, and Hawaiian monk seal pupping season has begun. The first pup was born on March 3 at Kure Atoll, located at the far end of the chain in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). Reports of additional births have been rolling in ever since, and to date (April 25) there have been at least 20 pups born; 13 in the NWHI (6 at Midway Atoll, 4 at Kure Atoll, 2 at French Frigate Shoals and 1 at Laysan Island), and 7 in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). The first pup in the MHI was discovered on Kahoʻolawe on March 12, followed shortly by 6 more pups (3 on Molokaʻi, 2 on Oʻahu and 1 on Hawaiʻi Island). Sadly, one of the Oʻahu pups died at/near birth (see companion article). However, the rest of the MHI pups are doing well and are in good out-of-the way locations where they will hopefully remain undisturbed. The main pupping season extends through the end of the summer, and pregnant female seals are busy foraging and laying down fat in preparation for the big day. This fat will sustain the moms for 5-7 weeks of fasting during the nursing period. And, the fat that mothers transfer to their pups in their milk will, in turn, sustain their pups for many months as the pups explore and learn how to find food on their own.

    There are likely more, undiscovered pups, especially as there are no field teams on most islands in the NWHI, where the majority of the pups are born. We gratefully acknowledge our collaborators who provided all the NWHI birth data, including teams from the State of Hawaiʻi - Department of Land and Natural Resources (Midway and Kure), US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) (Midway Atoll, Laysan and French Frigate Shoals), and NMFS-Coral Reef Ecosystem Division's Marine Debris Removal team (Midway Atoll).

    Weaned pup PL16 entangled in a line with plastic. Photo courtesy of USFWS
    Weaned pup PL16 entangled in a line with plastic. Photo courtesy of USFWS.

    Young seals are very curious and this behavior can get them into trouble. A newly tagged weaned pup (PL16) was discovered a few days later entangled in line and plastic at Midway Atoll! Luckily, he was rescued by a team comprised of State of Hawaiʻi and USFWS personnel. We hope that other seals are not getting into trouble, especially because no one is present to rescue them at most NWHI sites. Personnel from partner agencies are at some locations, and we are very grateful for their reporting and willingness to help seals in trouble. Even so, beach monitoring is not their primary focus, and most of their work is in the island interior, so life threatening seal emergencies on the beach or in the near-shore waters may not be detected (or detected in time).

  • April 26, 2013
    news icon
    Concerns over reproductive failure in a monk seal on Oʻahu
    Mom R137 in good body condition prior to pupping. Photo courtesy of Lesley MacPherson.
    Mom R137 in good body condition prior to pupping. Photo courtesy of Lesley MacPherson.

    In March 2013, an eight year old adult female seal (RI37) that is occasionally observed on Oʻahu gave birth to a presumptive stillborn pup near Punaluu, Oʻahu. This is not the first time that RI37 has had a failed pregnancy in her four years of reproductive maturity. Thanks to the information provided by members of the local community, the dead pup and placenta were retrieved and examined in order to determine its cause of death. A necropsy (an animal autopsy) was conducted and revealed contusions (bruises) that are consistent with dystocia (difficulty giving birth), though there are infectious diseases that must be ruled out as well. Pathogens that can cause failed pregnancies in seals include Brucella, Toxoplasma, Coxiella and Chlamydophila, to name a few (see Staff Publications for more information). Microscopic tissue examination and diagnostic testing of samples collected from the placenta and pup will guide our diagnosis in the coming weeks. Check out the PIFSC blog entry by veterinarian Michelle Barbieri: http://pifscblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/animal-autopsies-gaining-insights-from-death-to-help-the-living/. Stay tuned for more details.

  • April 26, 2013
    news icon
    NMFS and USFWS join forces to re-open the Storm Stuck Field Station in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

    French Frigate Shoals, located in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), hosts one of the largest pup producing subpopulations of Hawaiian monk seals. When on site, the monk seal field teams are based out of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) field station on Tern Island, the largest island in this atoll. Prior to a severe storm in December 2012, the facilities included a living/office quarters (barracks), a warehouse, and boat houses, with the amenities of running water, electricity (internet, though often intermittent) and sewage. This site was more "luxurious" compared to most other NWHI field sites which are seasonal tent camps.

    Day 2 - Organizing the gear before storing in buildings.
    Day 2 - Organizing the gear before storing in buildings.
    Gear organized in boat house.
    Gear organized in boat house.
    Refitting the boat.
    Refitting the boat.

    From March 14-30, two NMFS personnel, including one from the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, joined the USFWS team in re-opening the Tern Island facility. This was no ordinary deployment as the last team was evacuated three months prior because of a microburst storm that significantly damaged much of the station's infrastructure. The main barracks were in shambles and required major asbestos abatement, power and water systems were inoperable, and boathouses leveled. The well rounded crew of 9 worked around the clock for two weeks to safely and successfully get the Tern Island facility back on her feet. The NMFS team spearheaded the repair of the boats and consolidating, organizing and inventorying the monk seal field equipment and supplies that had been strewn about. Amazingly, most of this gear was relatively undamaged by the storm.

    Additionally, the NMFS team was able to visit all of the islets within the atoll and conduct a seal count. They also tagged 7 yearlings that weaned after the NMFS field effort last year. There were no monk seal births by the end of March, but pupping tends to start later at this atoll. The first birth was just reported in early April.

    A subset of the USFWS team remains on Tern Island to continue the facilities and infrastructure clean-up and repair. This mission was a successful example of inter-agency cooperation and hopefully a sign of good things to come.

  • April 26, 2013
    news icon
    A New Remote Camera Seal Monitoring System

    Through the JIMAR visiting scientist program, Dr. Alexey Altukhov from the Russian Academy of Science and North Pacific Wildlife Consulting (http://www.northpacificwildlife.com/about_us.htm), was hosted by the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) for a week in February to direct fabrication of two remote camera systems similar to those used to monitor the abundance of Steller sea lions at their remote northern Pacific rookeries. The system components include a digital SLR camera, control box (engineered by Alexey), 12-volt battery, pelican case and a solar panel. Still images can be recorded every 1 to 90 minutes during daylight hours, with enough memory for an entire year between maintenance checks.

    Field testing the newly fabricated camera system on Oʻahu.
    Field testing the newly fabricated camera system on Oʻahu.

    Sean Guerin of the HMSRP is the lead on this special project. The camera systems were successfully field tested on Nimitz Beach, a seal haul out area on Oʻahu along Barber's Point, and are scheduled to be deployed at Nihoa Island, in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, at the end of the summer. Nihoa was selected due to its inaccessibility (landing is often impossible due to sea conditions) and the single sandy beach on the island has one of the highest monk seal haul out densities, up to 40 animals on the 75 meter-long beach. Additionally, as many as 8 pups are born annually at Nihoa and there is evidence of aggressive adult male seal activity (distinctive large dorsal scars and one observed event). Currently, Nihoa is surveyed only a few days per year, and the limited data suggests this population has been increasing. Thus, the Nihoa subpopulation may hold clues to the divergent seal survival trends observed in the Northwestern and main Hawaiian Islands. Check back for updates on this exciting project.

    Special thanks to the NMFS Alaska Ecosystem Program who inspired this collaboration. For more information on the great work they are doing visit: http://www.afsc.noaa.gov/nmml/alaska/

  • April 24, 2013
    PIFSC scientists annually survey the endangered Hawaiian monk seal in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI), where most of the population resides and where the abundance of monk seals is declining. More...
  • January 10, 2013
    news icon
    Hooked Seal Rescued, Rehabilitated and Released to Wild

    On November 17, 2012, a hooked adult female Hawaiian monk seal named R5AY was rescued by a team of scientists from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program with able assistance from the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office, Waikiki Aquarium, Honolulu Zoo, Hawaiian Monk Seal Response Team Oʻahu (HMSRTO), The Marine Mammal Center, and local veterinary specialists. The seal is at least 15 years old and has given birth to 7 pups. She weaned her latest pup just 4 weeks prior to the rescue.

    After R5AY was rehabilitated in the Waikiki Aquarium, a satellite location transmitter was attached to her back 
                             and she was transported to her release site.
    After R5AY was rehabilitated in the Waikiki Aquarium, a satellite location transmitter was attached to her back and she was transported to her release site.

    R5AY was captured at Sunset Beach on the North Shore of Oʻahu, and brought into temporary captivity at the Waikiki Aquarium for rehabilitation. At the time of capture, she was emaciated, weak, covered in algae and had a fishhook lodged in her cheek. Attached to the hook was a monofilament leader and "pigtail" connector, the type of gear frequently used in "slide bait" shoreline fishing. More serious than the cheek injury, R5AY's tongue was severely damaged, preventing her from being able to successfully forage.

    The rescue team removed the hook from R5AY shortly after her capture, and later at the Honolulu Zoo, Miles Yoshioka, a veterinary surgeon, performed the delicate tongue repair, the first known surgery of this type on a Hawaiian monk seal. R5AY was monitored around the clock during her 13 days at the Waikiki Aquarium, before she was deemed fit for release back to the wild on November 29. Her continued recovery post-release is being monitored both by visual sightings by a network of observers, including HMSRTO, and also by satellite tracking to monitor her movement patterns.

    Since her release, R5AY has made a slow but steady recovery. While still thin, she is gradually gaining weight, demonstrating that she is again able to catch and consume prey in her natural habitat, despite losing a third of her tongue.

    Fishermen and all ocean users are urged to report hookings and other human interactions with monk seals as soon as possible by calling the Hawaiian Monk Seal Sighting Hotline at (808) 220-7802.

  • January 10, 2013
    news icon
    Monk Seals Packing Video Cameras Provide Valuable Information on Their Foraging in the Main Hawaiian Islands
    To learn more about the underwater behavior of monk seals in the main Hawaiian Islands, scientists are outfitting seals with video cameras.

    A small camera is carefully glued to the back of selected seals while they are ashore. Video recordings taken during the seals' ocean wanderings will help scientists understand how and where the endangered seals forage, and identify where the seals' activities may overlap with those of human ocean users including fishers, divers, surfers and others.

    A video camera glued to the pelage of a Hawaiian monk seal records information on the seal's foraging 
                             excursions and use of ocean habitat.
    A video camera glued to the pelage of a Hawaiian monk seal records information on the seal's foraging excursions and use of ocean habitat.

    This is a collaborative research project involving scientists from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center' Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, Duke University, the Monk Seal Foundation, and National Geographic, as well as students and community members.

    The first camera deployments, in August-September 2012, involved seals on Molokaʻi, Oʻahu, and Kauaʻ. Additional deployments are scheduled for early 2013.

  • November 26, 2012
    On August 5th, PIFSC monk seal scientists returned from field camps in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) on board the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. In a shorter-than usual 7-week field season, the researchers completed a variety of monitoring protocols to bolster knowledge of the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population in the NWHI. More...
  • September 7, 2012
    Hawaiian Monk Seal Pups Translocated from French Frigate Shoals to Laysan Island
    In efforts to increase the numbers of breeding females in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, two recently weaned female pups were collected from French Frigate Shoals (FFS) and transported 360 miles to neighboring Laysan Island in July 2012. Weaned pups at FFS have less than a 1 in 5 chance of surviving to adulthood, while pup survival is 3 times higher at Laysan Island.

    The seals were captured and sedated, received a health screening and were instrumented with a small satellite tag to track their movements for up to a year. Of utmost importance was the young seals' health and welfare, which was monitored 24 hours a day throughout the screening and translocation process. Once the seals were deemed healthy and fit for translocation, they were transported aboard the NOAA research vessel Oscar Elton Sette where they were kept cool and shaded in their cages. The seals spent most of their time on the ship sleeping; while the scientists on the other hand, covered round the clock shifts during the two day ride on the research vessel. The translocation was very successful and the pups are doing well in their new home on Laysan Island.

    Adobe Flash Player required to view video.

    Translocation of weaned monk seal pups from French Frigate Shoals to Laysan Island (video contains no audio).
    For further information:
  • September 7, 2012
    Monk seal mother and pup
    2012 Hawaiian Monk Seal Population Updates
    By mid-August, a total of 120 monk seal pups had been born in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands: Nihoa 7, Mokumanamana 5, French Frigate Shoals 31, Laysan 29, Lisianski 15, Pearl and Hermes Reef 10, Midway Atoll 10, and Kure Atoll 13. Thirteen pups were born in the main Hawaiian Islands: Molokaʻi 6, Kauaʻ 4, Oʻahu 2, and Kahoʻolawe 1. The pupping season is winding down; however, a few more births are anticipated.

    Field teams in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands have conducted several interventions in efforts to improve seal survival. Five seals entangled in marine debris were disentangled (Laysan 2, Lisianski 1, and Kure 2). It does not appear that entanglement rates in 2012 have been affected by debris from the Japan earthquake and tsunami. A weaned pup received medical treatment for a large abscess on Laysan. Two pups were reunited with their mothers (one each at Laysan and French Frigate Shoals). At French Frigate Shoals, ten weaned pups were moved to another island in the atoll where the risk of shark predation was lower. Two of these were subsequently moved to Laysan Island where juvenile survival overall is much higher than at French Frigate Shoals. Additionally, a combined total of 53 juvenile seals at Laysan Island, Lisianski Island, and Kure Atoll received non-invasive topical deworming treatments to help reduce their parasite loads and improve their body condition. In the main Hawaiian Islands, 6 seals have been dehooked: 4 on Oʻahu (1 was dehooked a second time where the hook was surgically removed; however the seal did not recover and was ultimately euthanized) and 2 from Kauaʻ (1 underwent surgery on Oʻahu to remove the ingested hook and was released back on Kauaʻ). Additionally, a weaned pup on Kauaʻ was translocated from an area in close proximity to a road and where other potentially harmful human interactions posed a threat to a more remote location.
  • September 7, 2012
    Hollings scholars
    NOAA Hollings Interns Hosted by HMSRP
    This summer the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program hosted two NOAA Hollings interns, Madeline (Maddy) Cohen and Emma Kelley. Their 10-week internship is part of a highly competitive, nation-wide 2-year scholarship program aimed at increasing undergraduate training in NOAA science, research, and technology and increasing public understanding and support for protection and preservation of the ocean and atmosphere. Only about 100 scholarships are awarded annually.

    Maddy Cohen is an Environmental Biology and Sustainable Development major at Columbia University. Her project (which will also be used for her senior thesis) is an analysis of predation pressure and how it may be affecting survival of the different age classes of monk seals at three sites (French Frigate Shoals, and Laysan and Lisianski Islands) in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI).

    Emma Kelley is a Marine Science major at the University of South Carolina. Her project is validating the use of the quantitative fatty acid signature analysis (QFASA) technique in determining diet for Hawaiian monk seals at Laysan and Lisianski Islands in the NWHI. QFASA uses samples of seal blubber to determine what and how much a seal is eating by comparing the fatty acid signatures found in the blubber to signatures in potential prey. The diving behavior of seals is then compared to the known occurrence of the identified prey at the various depths. This analysis will provide insight to the strengths, weaknesses, and accuracy of the QFASA technique for Hawaiian monk seals.
  • September 7, 2012
    Rover
    Pilot Study to Test Rover Vehicle for Hawaiian Monk Seal and Sea Turtle Population Monitoring
    A pilot study is in development for testing an autonomous, amphibious rover vehicle to potentially improve assessment and monitoring of Hawaiian monk seals and marine turtles in remote, nearshore areas of the Hawaiian Islands. For both monk seals and sea turtles, some key areas are under-sampled due to high costs and inaccessibility. The rover has the potential advantages of collecting data with minimal disturbance to wildlife and lower cost. In addition, many of the islands are extremely ecologically sensitive so that human access is highly limited. The rover vehicle has the capability to be deployed along remote coastal areas and to remain in the field, ideally operated without people on site.
  • August 17, 2012
    As the summer of 2012 unfolds, there's lots of activity on the Hawaiian monk seal research front. More...
  • July 19, 2012
    The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette is on a 23-day research expedition in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) to study the endangered Hawaiian monk seal and support research at French Frigate Shoals on the threatened green sea turtle. More...
  • June 15, 2012
    The NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette sailed from Honolulu on June 15, 2012, for a 30-day mission to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to study the endangered Hawaiian monk seal population and to survey and remove derelict fishing gear and other marine debris from beaches and coral reef habitats. More...
  • February 7, 2012
    On Sunday, January 29, an adult male Hawaiian monk seal known as KE18 was carefully removed from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands where his aggressive behavior had caused serious injury to young seals and posed a threat to their survival. KE18 was transported to Honolulu on a U.S. Coast Guard C-130. He will temporarily reside at the Waikiki Aquarium while officials continue to evaluate other options. More...
  • October 1, 2011
    The 2011 summer field season has drawn to a close with notable progress made in research to assess the status of Hawaiian monk seals throughout the Hawaiian Archipelago and actions to enhance recovery of the highly endangered species. More ...
  • August 23, 2011
    A team of researchers attempting to lethally remove a problematic male monk seal from the population at Kure Atoll abandoned the effort as the seal remained out of reach. More ...
  • June 1, 2011
    In mid-March 2011, scientists in the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program completed studies at winter field camps in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). More ...
  • March 1, 2011
    In recent months, the PIFSC Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) has focused on monk seal health and disease issues. More ...