Summer Monk Seal Research in Full Swing

As the summer of 2012 unfolds, there's lots of activity on the Hawaiian monk seal research front.

As part of its ongoing research to support the recovery of the endangered Hawaiian monk seal, PIFSC scientists established summer field camps at all major monk seal subpopulation breeding sites in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) except Midway Atoll. Where camps are established, seals are being monitored throughout an abbreviated (6-8-week) field season; only intermittent monitoring will occur at Midway. A continuing project to mitigate predation of monk seal pups by sharks at French Frigate Shoals is planned on a limited basis under a permit from the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

The monk seal Foraging Research Program is working on several projects focusing primarily on seals in the main Hawaiian Islands (MHI). In collaboration with scientists at Duke University, the program is continuing a project using cell phone tracking tags to identify foraging behavior and habitat use of MHI seals on a fine scale. A cell phone/satellite tag is enabling researchers to monitor foraging movements of a seal released May 2, 2012 on Kauai, after a hook was removed from the seal's mouth; recent movements of the seal are shown in the accompanying map. Tracking data are also being used in collaboration with the Navy to examine the impacts of naval activities on monk seal behavior. The Foraging Research Program has also been working with staff at the NOAA Fisheries Pacific Islands Regional Office to estimate prey biomass consumption by MHI seals.

After a hook was removed from its mouth, monk seal RK36 was outfitted with a cell phone/satellite tag and 
               released May 2, 2012 on Kauai.  The seal then foraged off Poipu along the south/southeast coast of the 
               island and regularly dove to 50-60 m depths, with one dive to 150 m.
After a hook was removed from its mouth, monk seal RK36 was outfitted with a cell phone/satellite tag and released May 2, 2012 on Kauai. The seal then foraged off Poipu along the south/southeast coast of the island and regularly dove to 50-60 m depths, with one dive to 150 m.

The Hawaiian monk seal Health and Disease Program recently worked with Dr. Michelle Barbieri, a veterinarian from The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, to implement recommendations from the Health and Disease External Review that was held in 2010. The collaborators reviewed and revised sample collection and testing protocols, including those for epidemiology sampling and tier-one testing, and made major revisions to necropsy and abscess protocols. In preparation for the upcoming (late 2013) move to the NOAA Pacific Regional Center on Ford Island, all samples are being inventoried, consolidated, and organized. A highlight event in the Health and Disease Program occurred on April 6, when Jessie Lopez, a program scientist with the University of Hawaii Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, successfully defended her Master's thesis research at Hawaii Pacific University. Her thesis was titled "Patterns and trends of persistent organic pollutants in the Hawaiian monk seal (Monachus schauinslandi) from the Main Hawaiian Islands: Looming threat or benign concern?"

There is also activity in two monk seal research teams created at the end of 2011. The Behavioral Research Team is continuing to monitor "seals of concern", is drafting a plan for research on seal behavior in the MHI, and is analyzing data for a draft manuscript on human-seal interactions. The team is using a variety of nontraditional data sources (e.g., YouTube) to better understand and define seal-human interactions in Hawaii. The Fisheries Interaction Team is developing a plan for research on fisheries interactions with monk seals. The objectives are to identify, study, characterize, and mitigate interactions between Hawaii's fisheries and monk seals. The team will begin by systematically reviewing all fisheries in the MHI to identify those known to interact with monk seals, or having the potential to do so. Data on these focal fisheries relevant to fishery interactions will be gathered (e.g., location of fishing, target catch, gear type, and any existing seal interaction information). Following the fishery review, the team will engage stakeholders (both public and private) to develop and evaluate strategies to minimize adverse impacts of fishery interactions with monk seals, such as loss of fishing gear, loss of fish catch, and seal injuries. The team recently met with staff of the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources to discuss partnerships on the project and identify areas for research.

In other recent activity, a team of monk seal researchers conducted an analysis to understand the benefits that accrued to the seal population as a result of human interventions during 1995-2010. They identified and characterized types of interventions that likely or definitely resulted in increasing the chances of survival of a seal, e.g., disentangling seals from nets, de-hooking seals, or reuniting separated mothers and pups; the focus was primarily on interventions that addressed high-risk situations. The table below summarizes the number of interventions by type during 1995-2010.

Number of intervention events to enhance survival of monk seals during 1995–2010
Type of Intervention Intervention Events
Disentanglement/dehooking 216
Rescue seal from entrapment or out-of-habitat situation 33
Translocation 240
Human-assisted pup switch/pup reunification with mother 103
Cut umbilical cord when attached placenta poses drowning risk 20
Veterinary medical treatment 37
Mitigating life-threatening situation (e.g., hazing aggressive male attacking a pup) 33
Captive rehabilitation and release 75
Total 757

After compiling the interactions data, the team estimated how many pups were born within the 5-yr period, including first and second generation progeny. Combining all 3 generations of seals, they calculated that approximately 204 seals currently in the population were either handled during interventions or descended from handled seals. The team concluded that survival-enhancing interventions by NOAA researchers and other field staff have accounted for at least 18% of the present seal population. Thus a responsive, well-planned intervention program is a critical component of the monk seal recovery strategy. A manuscript describing the results is being prepared for publication.