A Letter to the Public on the Loss of a Seal

October 2, 2015

I am sorry to announce that a seal died during a routine procedure while the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program (HMSRP) was conducting research and recovery work in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. On September 17, the team captured a 13-year-old adult male monk seal as part of our general health assessment research at Laysan Island. For the sake of transparency and our responsibility to the public trust and to the species, the HMSRP felt it was important that we should detail and share the event, our protocols, and what happens in the wake of losing a seal.

Prior to capturing any seal, be it for science or emergency intervention, our team goes through a rigorous process of assessing risks to the animal and to personnel. This includes determining if there are rocks or other hazards that could injure human or seal. Is it too hot? Is there a danger related to waves or surge? Are there other seals? Are there sufficient people and resources to safely undertake the activity? And more. The process was no different on the morning of September 17. We had a skilled team. The morning was still cool. The beach was wide open and sandy. The seal didn't have any injuries or other factors that would preclude us from capturing him. After discussing the imminent capture, assigning roles, and reviewing emergency procedures, the team felt comfortable moving ahead. The capture itself went smoothly and quickly and our veterinarian was able to sedate the seal shortly afterwards.

There are a wide variety of drugs that can be used to sedate or, in some cases, anesthetize seals when they are being handled. For monk seals we tend to use diazepam (a.k.a. valium). Our choice of drug is based on its relatively large window for safe use and ease of reversal. We use a dosage that encourages the seals to relax in the net during restraint and sometimes the seals will fall asleep. Prior to capture the veterinarian determines the dosage for the sedative based on an estimate of the seal's size and condition. These estimates are based on years of experience working on monk seals. We avoid dosages that would intentionally "incapacitate" the animal. There is a lot of care and consideration that must be put into the selection and use of sedatives when working with seals. Even with the mildest of sedatives seals can go into "dive response" when sedated. This state mimics the physiological response that occurs when seals dive: the heart rate decreases and breathing can stop. This is precisely what happened on that morning at Laysan.

When the team became aware that the seal was becoming unresponsive, steps were taken to reverse the drugs, stimulate the seal with physical touch and drugs, and intubate to assist with breathing. This is a situation that the team is trained for, but despite our best efforts we were unsuccessful in reviving the seal.

The team conducted a full necropsy to help us determine what other factors may have contributed to the loss of this animal. Nothing was identified in the necropsy to suggest an underlying health concern that contributed to the seal's death. At this time we must conclude that it was solely due to our capture and handling of the seal that lead to its death.

Events like this are extremely rare for our program even though we handle many seals. This is the fifth research related death in approximately 8,200 seal handlings since 1981. This exceptional safety record is due to the fact that we have established strict protocols for seal and human safety. Safety and mitigating risk are core principles of our program.

In response to this loss we have imposed a temporary safety stand-down for our research activities as we review and debrief on our protocols. This included a debriefing by the field team immediately after the incident. We will have an additional meeting with the entire HMSRP when all of our staff return from the field. Any insights or changes in protocol will be shared publicly.

We have dedicated ourselves to the recovery of this species and work tirelessly every day to accomplish our mission. We train constantly to prevent this from occurring but know that tragedy will strike at some point. We are terribly saddened by this loss and promise to always strive to improve our program and ensure the greatest level of safety to seals and scientists.

Dr. Charles Littnan
Lead Scientist - Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program

On behalf of all the dedicated staff of the HMSRP.