A Glimmer of Hope for the Hawaiian Monk Seal Population!

February 20, 2017

Shhhh... It's no leisure nap for the Hawaiian monk seals!
 Taking a much-needed rest in a peaceful setting, with no attacks from sharks at least.
(Photo: NOAA/Andy Collins)

Upon the arrival of the year of the Fire Rooster last week, the Islands have received awakening great news for the state of the Hawaiian monk seal population. According to the latest assessment by the Hawaiian Monk Seal Research Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the population of this critically endangered marine mammal from Hawaiian has been increasing 3 percent annually in the past three years; now estimated to be 1,427 seals in the wild! And there is a reason why this figure gives us a little gasp of joy.

Due to the grim history of fierce seal hunting in the 1800s, the Hawaiian monk seal has once been nearly extinct in the early 1900s (In 1900 it was said that wild monk seals were so rare that catching a sight of a solitary seal on the coast was a once-in-10-year event). However, as its name "monk" may imply, they showed a great resilience of humbleness battles, or grit and determination like a dog per its Hawaiian name (‘Ilio-holo-i-ka-uaua means dog running in the rough seas), and bounced back its size greatly to 3,400 by the 1950s. 

Despite the recovery and the relentless conservation efforts, however, the population has been declining since then, due to the limited food availability and other predicaments such as shark attacks, entanglement in marine debris. In 2012 NOAA estimated that the population will decline at a rate of 4% a year and fall below 1,000 in a few years.  As if patting the back of everyone who engages in the conservation effort and give them a seal of approval, they flipped over the declining trend and made the year 2016 the third consecutive year of population growth!

Today, as we are faced with the pressing news about the record high surface temperature of the earth and the delicate health of coral reef habitats around the globe, this above-the-expectation growth of the Hawaiian monk seal population certainly helped us renew our hope in environmental and wildlife conservation.

Being native to Hawaii and the oldest seal on the planet, their ancestors witnessed the change in the Hawaiian archipelago for more than 10 million years. They were there when a chain of atolls and reefs emerged from the bottom of the sea, or Kauai was formed 5 million years ago. They were with them when Polynesian people sailed through the Pacific Ocean and arrived in Hawaii nearly 2,000 years ago. And sadly, they had to see their cousin, the Caribbean monk seal, be extinct.

The long-term goal is to recover the population back to the 1950s level—at around 3,400 wild seals. Referring to the facts that female monk seals give birth only 1 pup per year or none at all, and a low survival rate of young seals (at one point, less than 1 out of 5 juvenile seals reached their adulthood), there’s a long path ahead. But still, this great news of the rising population was the exact momentum that we needed at the wake of the new year!

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