Monk Seal Response News and Updates

August 22, 2014

Please Report All Human-Seal Interactions

Yearling female seal RN58 with a fishhook embedded in the corner of her mouth.  This hook was removed by NOAA response personnel.
Yearling female seal RN58 with a fishhook embedded in the corner of her mouth. This hook was removed by NOAA response personnel.

As a reminder, monk seals are endangered, wild animals and people should act responsibly and not approach them. Fishermen are encouraged to avoid fishing when a seal is observed in the area and to use barbless hooks to minimize injury from accidental hookings of seals and other non-target animals, including turtles. Please report all seal interactions and hookings/entanglements immediately to (808) 220-7802 or pifsc.monksealsighting@noaa.gov. Timely reporting can improve the chances of survival for a hooked or otherwise compromised seal, and improve NOAA's ability to identify and manage individual seals with repeated human seal interactions and to preserve public safety.

Human Interactions Cause Seal to be moved to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI)

A 2-year old female seal born on Molokaʻi, RL06, had been seen intermittently on west Maui interacting with divers, snorkelers, and swimmers, even taking fish from spear fishers, over the last year. Education efforts were undertaken to explain the need to keep the seal wild and the potential human safety risks. However, the interactions with humans were becoming increasingly more aggressive and included blocking swimmers from exiting the water, holding onto people, and some bites to humans. RL06 rarely hauled out on the beach and sightings were unpredictable, which hampered attempts to modify her behavior. She is a large juvenile seal weighing close to 250 pounds and as she grows older and larger, there was an even greater concern about public safety.

A team of NOAA staff and volunteers captured RL06 on June 20th at Kāʻanapali, Maui. She was transported to Oʻahu via a US Coast Guard flight and then boarded the NOAA Research Vessel Hiʻialakai on June 24th which was departing for the NWHI to deploy the field teams for the annual monk seal population monitoring. RL06 traveled over 1,000 miles on deck of the ship and was released on Laysan Island 4 days later. Laysan hosts the largest subpopulation of monk seals where seals outnumber the humans by 40 to 1 (200 seals to 5 researchers). Additionally, juvenile survival on Laysan has been higher in recent years. Since her release, RL06 has been exploring her new home and surrounding waters. She is being monitored visually by the field team and also via a satellite tag to track her movements. It is truly unfortunate that this seal had to be moved, because her behavior had been altered due to human activities and in some cases she was encouraged to interact with humans.

Fisheries Interactions

X-ray image of a fishhook lodged in yearling female seal RN58's esophagus prior to hook removal by NOAA response personnel.
X-ray image of a fishhook lodged in yearling female seal RN58's esophagus prior to hook removal by NOAA response personnel.

A total of 11 seal hookings have been reported since the first of this year (compared to 13 in 2013), with the majority of the hooking occurring on Oʻahu (6), 2 each on Kauaʻi and Maui, and 1 on Hawaiʻi Island. Over half of the hookings (6) occurred between the 5-week period from June 6-July 10. Five of the seals were dehooked (1 seal twice, see RN58 below) and a 6th seal died shortly after ingesting a barbed hook. In the remaining 5 cases, the seal was not resighted after being reported as hooked, or the seal was able to rid itself of the hook on its own.

Three notable hooking events include two with RN58 or "Luana" who was born last year on the North Shore of Oʻahu and had ingested a hook on June 7th. Fortunately, a responsible fisherman immediately reported the hooking and cut as much of the trailing line as possible to prevent further entanglement. A NOAA response team was able to locate and capture her 4 days later. RN58 was brought in to the NOAA Ford Island facility where x-rays were taken to locate the hook. Fortunately the hook removal did not necessitate surgery and was accomplished while the seal was sedated. Less than 24 hours later RN58 was released in the same area where she was captured. However, this seal did not fully learn to avoid fishhooks and was re-hooked just 12 days later, on June 24th. A NOAA response team was able to dehook her on the beach the next day. Fortunately, this second hooking was less life threatening as this smaller sized hook was caught in the side of her mouth.

The third hooking event resulted in a seal death. Male seal, RN40 or "Keokea", was only 8 months old when found dead on the fourth of July at Keawaiki Bay, about 20 miles North of Kona, on Hawaiʻi Island. There was medium test monofilament fishing line visible from his mouth. The carcass was flown to Oʻahu, where x-rays were taken and a necropsy was performed. The seal was in good nutritional condition, and x-rays showed a medium sized J-hook lodged in his esophagus near the entrance of the stomach. Unfortunately the hook had penetrated the esophagus and into a portion of the seal's lung. This injury was so acute that even if the hooking had been reported immediately, RN40 would likely have not survived long enough for any medical treatment.

Rehabilitation of Undernourished Juvenile seals from the NWHI

On July 9, the very first patients, 4 undernourished juvenile seals from the NWHI, arrived at The Marine Mammal Center's (TMMC) brand new Hawaiian monk seal hospital, Ke Kai Ola (The Healing Sea), located in Kailua-Kona on Hawaiʻi Island. The seals were transported by the NOAA Research Vessel Hiʻialakai, after deploying the NWHI monk seal field camps. The seal patients include a yearling female from Midway Atoll, 2 weaned pups (a male and a female) from Pearl and Hermes Reef, and a yearling-sized female seal from French Frigate Shoals. This partnership with TMMC, a non-profit agency, provides a pivotal opportunity for compromised seals to receive treatment and care and marks the first time in 8 years that seals from the NWHI have been brought in for rehabilitation. This is significant, as there have been many seal candidates for rehabilitation, but no facilities. The plan is to release these 4 seals back to the NWHI at the end of the summer, when the NOAA Research Vessel Oscar Elton Sette, goes to pick up the monk seal field teams in September. The release location for these juveniles will be determined once the 2014 immature survival rates for each atoll have been identified.