by Joshita Richard
The U.S. Pacific waters are home to one of the oldest pinniped (or seal) species in the world. The Hawaiian monk seal, Neomonachus schauinslandi, is a non-migratory, warm-water seal species and it has called the Islands of Hawaii a sanctuary for the past 3.5 million years. These generalist feeders consume crustaceans, cephalopods, and many types of fish. Unfortunately, due to becoming bycatch from fishing net entanglement, marine debris, and past commercial hunting, they have been listed as “Endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) since 1976. They are considered the rarest seal species in U.S. waters.
Hawaiian monk seals are currently protected under the ESA, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) and Hawaiian state law. So revered is this species that Hawaii selected the monk seal as their official state animal in 2008 to raise public awareness of the seal’s vulnerability and the need to preserve them. It is a class C felony to harass, capture, injure or kill a Hawaiian monk seal and the NOAA also instructs the public to maintain a distance of at least 50 feet when near one of them. Through conservation efforts, their numbers have risen to over 1,500 as of 2021, but they still face obstacles on their path to population stability.
Pollution has been one of the biggest anthropogenic threats to the Hawaiian monk seal. Entanglement in fishing nets has been a major concern with this species, as nets and other foreign material can wrap around a seal’s neck, snout or flipper and cause fatal damage. Among all other pinniped species, Hawaiian monk seals have one of the highest documented entanglement rates.
Besides fishing nets, plastic pollution has also been a major issue affecting seal health and breeding efforts. Hawaiian beaches that serve as nursing grounds for monk seal pups have been filled with debris, causing them to mistakenly ingest harmful plastic. A 2013 account from photographer Daniel Fox at Kamilo beach, a monk seal nursing ground, referred to the area as “plastic soup,” specifically noting the large number of bottle caps in the sand. NOAA and other conservation groups have been working to remove marine debris from the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands since 1996, but plastic debris still aggregates at an unchanging rate. One reason for this is Hawaii’s location in the North Pacific gyre and its close proximity to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Combined trade winds and ocean currents easily bring unwanted material from all over the world into Hawaiian waters and shores.
If you’re looking for a way to help, even if you don’t reside in Hawaii, you can still contribute to saving Hawaiian Monk seals and other species threatened by marine pollution by recycling properly, purchasing less single-use plastics, participating in beach cleanups, and supporting organizations, such as Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii (SCH), that are working to address this growing problem. SCH has been organizing large -scale beach cleanups for the past 10 years, and with the help of thousands of volunteers they’ve cleaned 609,106 pounds of pollution. Besides volunteering, you can help their efforts by following them on social media or making donations that will go towards clean-up supplies, education, and technology innovation.
The Hawaiian monk seal has managed to survive in Hawaii for millions of years, but they have only been critically endangered for the past 200 years due to human-related causes. However, conservation efforts seem to be working, since around 30% of monk seals are alive today directly because of life-saving intervention. On the Island of O’ahu, local communities and the NOAA have applied the important Hawaiian naming tradition to the monk seal, allowing students to help name seals to foster a sense of responsibility toward the species. The first Hawaiian monk seal pup of 2023 was born on January 28th to a seal named Kaimana. To welcome the new addition, students chose to name the pup “U’i Mea Ola”, meaning “beautiful survivor.”
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Fox, D. (2013, July 12). Plastic soup nursery for Hawaiian monk seals. Mission Blue. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://missionblue.org/2013/07/plastic-soup-nursery-for-hawaiian-monk-seals/
Hawaiian Monk Seals . Marine Conservation Institute. (2020, July 23). Retrieved March 9, 2023, from https://marine-conservation.org/hawaiian-monk-seals/
Johorey, J. (2017, February 27). Why is the Hawaiian monk seal endangered? animalwised.com. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://www.animalwised.com/why-is-the-hawaiian-monk-seal-endangered-1351.html
Lai, O. (2022, March 1). Plastic pollution in Hawaii. Earth.Org. Retrieved March 11, 2023, from https://earth.org/plastic-pollution-in-hawaii/#:~:text=Causes%20of%20Plastic%20Pollution%20in%20Hawaii&text=But%20plastic%20pollution%20in%20Hawaii,the%20Great%20Pacific%20Garbage%20Patch.
The Endangered Monk Seals. The Endangered Monk Seals | Ocean Futures Society. (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2023, from https://www.oceanfutures.org/learning/kids-cove/creature-feature/monk-seals