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Thursday, December 08, 2022

Endangered Hawaiian monk seal population highest in decades

HONOLULU ( Associated Press) — The population of endangered Hawaiian monk seals has passed a level not seen in more than two decades, according to federal officials.

Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said this week that the seal population has steadily increased over the past two years.

Officials estimate the population to exceed 100 from 2019 to 2021, bringing the total to 1,435 to 1,570 sealed. Monk seals live only in Hawaii, including the uninhabited northwestern Hawaiian Islands where most of the animals are found.

The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are all within the Papanaumaokuakea Marine National Monument, the largest protected marine area in the United States and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Michelle Barberi, lead scientist for NOAA’s Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program, said the count shows conservation efforts are helping. The group travels across the archipelago providing treatment and rescue to animals in distress.

“We’re out there ourselves and working with partners to prioritize women who are going to create the future generation of seals,” Barberi said. “We’re really starting to see the continued payoff of intervening to save animal lives.”

NOAA has monitored seal populations for nearly 40 years. The agency said it is the first time the population has crossed 1,500 in more than 20 years.

The animals are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act and are extirpated under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Officials said the trend is promising, but concerns remain about survival as the low-lying islands and atolls on seals are at risk from rising sea levels linked to climate change.

Some of the islands in the region are only two feet (meters) above sea level.

“Climate change is definitely something we’re really concerned about,” Barberi said. “We’re actually seeing those effects, we’re living it now. And it has real implications for the seals’ survival.”

The islets of the French Frigate Shoal are home to about 20% of monk seals in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands and have long hosted the largest sub-populations of the species.

The land mass there has shrunk over the decades, with some islands completely disappearing.

Whaleskate Island, Trig and East Island have all been washed away. Whaleskate and Trig were lost to erosion and the eastern island was wiped out by Hurricane Valaka in 2018.

Loss of terrestrial habitat is one of the problems facing the population. Seals often become trapped in fishing nets and other marine debris, swallow fishing hooks and some seals are targeted and killed by humans.

Monk seal populations declined for decades before the population recovered in 2013.

Barberi said animals not only play a vital role in the food chain, but they are also indicators of the overall health of the ocean.

“If we have healthy monk seals,” Barberi said, “we know that the ecosystem that supports those animals is healthy and thriving.”

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