By Nina Wu
The first monk seal patients from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands arrived at the monk seal hospital in Kona this afternoon to get a second chance at survival.
Four seals — two yearling females, a female weaned pup and male weaned pup, were all underweight for their age and thus, less likely to survive. This is especially true for the two pups, who likely would not have survived their first year of life.
NOAA Research Vessel Hi‘ialakai, which is returning from a 26-day cruise to the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, transported the seals to the hospital. The move was possible due to a new permit that allows NOAA Fisheries to rehabilitate undernourished monk seals in medical facilities and then return them to the NWHI.
The four seals were collected at Midway Atoll, Pearl and Hermes Reef, and French Frigate Shoals. They will be fed herring and cared for over the next two months before being returned to Papahanaumokuakea, or the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Previously, scientists had to leave malnourished seals behind to fend for themselves, but now have a place to take them.
Last year, The Marine Mammal Center opened the first phase of Ke Kai Ola (The Healing Sea), a brand-new, $3.2 million facility in Kona that offers two newborn rehabilitation pens and pools, quarantine pen areas and two larger pens and pools for juvenile seals. The center, a non-profit group based in Marin, Calif. plans to add a medical lab, staff office, patient food preparation kitchen and education pavilion.
"This is an incredibly exciting time for monk seal recovery," said Charles Littnan, lead scientist for the NOAA Fisheries Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program. "In the past, we would have had to leave these animals behind in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and they would have almost certainly died. Now they get a second chance to live, grow and ensure the future of their species."
NOAA Fisheries recently deployed its annual monk seal recovery camps, in which teams of researchers monitor the seal population and help disentangle seals from marine debris. Field researchers will conduct their work at the camps until September.
Caring for and rehabilitating monk seals in captivity is no easy task, according to Marine Mammal Center and NOAA veterinarian Michelle Barbieri.
"Time is of the greatest essence, and these seals have a steep road ahead if they are to survive," she said. "Care for our new patients began the moment they were brought aboard the ship, and Ke Kai Ola will provide the healing environment to help them make it through the difficult weeks ahead. We will continue working around the clock to give these animals the medical support and nutrition the need before they are returned to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands."
Hawaiian monk seals, found only in the Hawaiian islands, are critically endangered, with a population hovering at about 1,100. Fewer than one in five Hawaiian monk seal pups in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands survive their first year due to threats like entanglement in ocean trash, changes in the food chain and predation. NOAA Fisheries is making efforts to slow the species decline.
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